Category Archives: Agriculture

Headlines of the day: Classes, deep politics, more


First, a stunning landmark is reached. From the New York Times:

The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.

After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.

On of the key mechanisms of the collapse of the middle class from Mother Jones:

How Taxpayers Subsidize the Multi-Million Dollar Salaries of Restaurant CEOs

  • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz raked in $236 million in taxpayer-subsidized compensation over the past two years.

As the fight to raise the minimum wage has gained momentum, the restaurant industry has emerged as the biggest opponent. This is no surprise, since the industry claims the highest percentage of low-wage workers—60 percent—of any other business sector. Front-line fast-food workers earn so little money that about half of them rely on some form of public assistance, to the tune of about $7 billion a year. That hidden subsidy has helped boost restaurant industry profits to record highs. In 2013, the industry reaped $660 billion in profits, and it in turn channeled millions into backing efforts to block local governments from raising pay for low-wage workers and to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour (exactly where it’s been for the past 22 years). But public assistance programs aren’t the only way taxpayers subsidize the restaurant industry.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies finds that the public has been contributing to excessive CEO compensation as well, helping to widen the gap between the lowest-paid workers and their bosses. Thanks to a loophole in the tax code, corporations are allowed to deduct unlimited amounts of money from their tax bills for executive compensation, so long as it comes in the form of stock options or “performance pay.” The loophole was the inadvertent result of an attempt by Congress to rein in CEO compensation by limiting the tax deduction for executive pay to $1 million a year. That law exempted pay that came in the form of stock options or performance pay. This loophole has proven lucrative for CEOs of all stripes, but it is particularly egregious in an industry that pays its workers so little that it is already heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

More from UC Berkeley’s Robert Reich:

Raising Taxes on Corporations that Pay Their CEOs Royally and Treat Their Workers Like Serfs

Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.

Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation.

This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing — contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.

Renting wombs to fertilized eggs from abroad via Quartz:

Wealthy Chinese are turning to American surrogates to birth their children

The familiar image of international surrogacy until now has mainly involved Americans and Europeans crossing the world to find women to birth their children. Now, wealthy Chinese couples are seeking surrogates in the US. The practice—a new version of Chinese “birth tourism”—offers a solution to rising infertility in China, a way around Chinese population controls, and even the added bonus of US citizenship for babies born in the States.

For years, pregnant Chinese women have come to the US, mainly to the West Coast, to give birth to baby US citizens who can, at the age of 21, sponsor their parents for green cards. In a new wrinkle, some are instead paying American women to carry their children—a way of getting citizenship as well as dealing with the fact that more Chinese couples are facing trouble having children. (Other surrogacy destinations for wealthy Chinese include Thailand, India, and Ukraine, but the US is still the favorite.)

Salon finds brown noses:

Welcome to Plutocrat-geddon! Obama and Thomas Friedman flatter our new billionaire overlords

  • Forget inequality! Judging by the White House and the media, the real answer is sucking up to the wealthiest

Inequality is a burning topic among economists, especially since the release of Thomas Piketty’s recent book on the subject. Many are questioning whether this is a temporary period of runaway inequality, or whether we are on the verge of an irreversible collapse into extremes of wealth and poverty. (What would we call it? The Oligopolypse? Plutogeddon?)

But numbers alone don’t tell the full story. Culture, too, is adapting to this unequal world. We idealize the wealthy today in ways that would have been unthinkable decades ago.

With the children of today’s baby boomers scheduled to inherit $30 trillion in the next several decades, politicians and the press are hard at work flattering plutocrats of all ages by portraying them as paragons of wisdom.

Another assault on the potential middle class from the New York Times:

Student Loans Can Suddenly Come Due When Co-Signers Die, a Report Finds

For students who borrow on the private market to pay for school, the death of a parent can come with an unexpected, added blow, a federal watchdog warns. Even borrowers who have good payment records can face sudden demands for full, early repayment of those loans, and can be forced into default.

Most people who take out loans to pay for school have minimal income or credit history, so if they borrow from banks or other private lenders, they need co-signers — usually parents or other relatives. Borrowing from the federal government, the largest source of student loans, rarely requires a co-signer.

The problem, described in a report released Tuesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, arises from a little-noticed provision in private loan contracts: If the co-signer dies or files for bankruptcy, the loan holder can demand complete repayment, even if the borrower’s record is spotless. If the loan is not repaid, it is declared to be in default, doing damage to a borrower’s credit record that can take years to repair.

And a warning to labor from the London Daily Mail:

The future of factories? Swarm of super-fast robotic ‘ANTS’ powered by magnets can independently climb walls and even build

  • The army of robo-ants can move at around 13.7 inches (35cm) a second
  • This is equivalent to a human running at just under the speed of sound
  • Each ant can be individually controlled using magnets on a circuit board
  • Swarm has already built a tower 30cm (11.8 inches) high from carbon rods

Business Insider sounds the alarm:

DAVID EINHORN: ‘We Are Witnessing Our Second Tech Bubble In 15 Years’

Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn, who runs Greenlight Capital, says we’re seeing another tech bubble, CNBC reported, citing his fund’s quarterly investor letter.

“Now there is a clear consensus that we are witnessing our second tech bubble in 15 years. What is uncertain is how much further the bubble can expand, and what might pop it,” Einhorn wrote in the letter (PDF) posted online by @Levered_Hawkeye.

Clicking away your rights from the Christian Science Monitor:

General Mills drops arbitration clause, but such contracts are ‘pervasive’

Consumer advocates warn that clicking ‘I agree’ to online contracts can crimp buyers’ legal rights, if a contract requires arbitration and nixes class-action lawsuits. The practice is spreading, though General Mills encountered a backlash.

When consumers click “I agree” to online contracts, two things can happen: They may give up their right to pursue a class action lawsuit if something goes wrong, and they can seek damages only through arbitration, an out-of-court legal process that many experts say weighs against the harmed consumer.

From the Los Angeles Times. Another landmark:

Supreme Court upholds Michigan ban on affirmative action

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of racial affirmative action in its state universities Tuesday, ruling that voters are entitled to decide the issue.

The 6-2 decision clears away constitutional challenges to the state bans on affirmative action, which began in California in 1996.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said the democratic process can decide such issues. “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” he said. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

Kochs go Latino, via Reuters:

Conservative Koch-backed group uses soft touch in recruiting U.S. Hispanics

The conservative advocacy groups backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are known mostly for spending millions of dollars to pelt Democratic candidates with negative television ads.

But this year, one Koch-backed group is using a softer touch to try to win over part of the nation’s booming Hispanic population, which has overwhelmingly backed Democrats in recent elections. The group, known as The Libre Initiative, is sponsoring English classes, driver’s license workshops and other social programs to try to build relationships with Hispanic voters in cities from Arizona to Florida – even as the group targets Democratic lawmakers with hard-edged TV ads.

Taking a cue from liberal groups that have been active in Hispanic neighborhoods for decades, Libre says it aims to use these events to build support for small-government ideas in communities that typically support big-government ideals.

From NPR, a reminder from Mother Nature:

California’s Drought Ripples Through Businesses, Then To Schools

Nearly half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, a state that is drying up. , the entire state is considered “abnormally dry,” and two-thirds of California is in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought conditions.

Earlier this year, many farmers in California found out that they would get no irrigation water from state or federal water projects. Recent rains have helped a little. On Friday, government officials said there was enough water to give a little more to some of the region’s farmers — 5 percent of the annual allocation, instead of the nothing they were getting.

>snip<

Economists say it’s too early to accurately predict the drought’s effect on jobs, but it’s likely as many as 20,000 will be lost.

That might not sound like a lot, but many of those workers are already living paycheck to paycheck in communities that depend on that work.

Via the National Drought Monitor, the current state of affairs in California, ranging from lightest [abnormally dry] to darkest [exceptional drought]:

BLOG Drought

After the jump, the latest from Europe [including spiking austerian suicides], Asia’s Game of Zones, an American Nazi whose work inspired a French film, spy games, and muich more. . . Continue reading

More of those not-so-random headlines to mull


First up, how the New York Times covers the elite from Gawker:

Insanely Rich Reporter Covers White House Meeting of the Insanely Rich

There’s a lot to pore over in the New York Times Style section’s coverage of a conference for über-wealthy “next-generation” philanthropists that was recently held at the White House.

There’s the list of attendees, which includes the young progeny of such hallowed, moneyed families as Hilton, Rockefeller, and Pritzker. There’s the breathless, classically Style section-y way in which participants and organizers are described: eloquent, nimble, and commanding gravitas, wearing pinstripe suits and “scraggy Brooklyn-style facial hair.” There’s the reference to one 19-year-old attendee’s “swooping” Bieberesque bangs, despite the fact that Bieber hasn’t had that haircut in years.

Most of all, however, there’s this disclosure notice from the reporter, about halfway through the article:

Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.

At a conference for such refined people as these, not just any reporter will do. No, it must be a writer who intimately knows the struggles of the young and wealthy, and who can accurately transmit the ways in which they’re saving the planet to the unwashed Times-reading masses. It must be Jamie Johnson (net worth about $610 million, according to Business Insider in 2011), heir to the Johnson & Johnson company fortune.

And from the London Telegraph, that bastion of Toryism, gilding a turd:

Has the West fallen prey to crony capitalism?

  • There are certainly signs of a wealth gap – like the explosion of buy-to-let landlords in London – but that will inspire the strivers and innovators

From the Oakland Tribune, yet another gift from Proposition 13 [and here]:

Oakland auditor sounds pension alarm

Pension costs have more than doubled over the past decade, leaving Oakland with fewer police officers, more potholes and a growing threat of insolvency, City Auditor Courtney Ruby warned in a report released Sunday.

Oakland’s payments to the state pension system jumped from $37 million in 2003 to $89 million in 2012, the report found.

That $52 million gap is enough to pay the salaries of 300 police officers, according to city budget figures.

From the Los Angeles Times, the grift that keeps on giving:

Student debt holds back many would-be home buyers

Of the many factors holding back young home buyers — rising prices, tougher lending standards, a still-shaky job market — none looms larger than the recent explosion of college debt.

Of the many factors holding back young home buyers — rising prices, tougher lending standards, a still-shaky job market — none looms larger than the recent explosion of college debt.

The amount owed on student loans has tripled in a decade, to nearly $1.1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. People in their 20s and 30s — often the best-educated and highest-earning among them — owe most of that tab. That is keeping a crucial segment of home buyers on the sidelines, deferring one of the traditional markers of adult success.

The National Assn. of Realtors recently identified student debt as a key factor in soft demand for home-buying this spring. A recent study by the trade group identified student loans as the top reason many home buyers delayed their purchase. Many more didn’t buy at all.

Surveys show today’s adults value homeownership just as much as their parents did. But the shaky job market, higher debt loads, and the roller-coaster market of recent years is keeping many from pulling the trigger, said Selma Hepp, senior economist with the California Assn. of Realtors.

And the darker side of the picture from The Young Turks:

Students Loans Are HUGE Profit-Centers For The Government

Program notes:

“The U.S. Department of Education is forecast to generate $127 billion in profit over the next decade from lending to college students and their families, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Beginning in the 2015-16 academic year, students and their families are forecast to pay more to borrow from the department than they did prior to last summer’s new student loan law, which set student loan interest rates based on the U.S. government’s costs to borrow. The higher costs for borrowers would arrive at least a year sooner than previously predicted.”* The Young Turks hosts Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian break it down.

And it’s not just in the U.S. From TheLocal.se:

Students to keep paying off debt beyond 67

The Swedish government has proposed scrapping the 25-year span for repaying student loans, by suggesting those who attend higher education should keep paying the money back well into retirement.

At present some 200,000 students have their student loan written off every year when they reach the age of 67. However, proposals in the government’s spring government bill are set to increase the financial burden on students.

Along with the idea of extending the debt into old age, the government are going to more than double the fee when students get a late payment reminder.

Next up, grief from Old Blighty as Tory Dubyafication of British education rouses ire, via The Independent:

Furious teacher brands Michael Gove a ‘demented Dalek on speed’ as NUT threaten more strikes

A furious teacher has branded Michael Gove a “demented Dalek on speed” during a series of scathing attacks against the Education Secretary at the teachers’ union conference.

Mr Gove was likened to the Doctor Who monster, known as the most hated adversary in all of time and space, as teachers threatened a major escalation of strike action at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference in Brighton on Saturday.

A member of the teachers’ union insisted that the Education Secretary was determined to “exterminate anything good in education that’s come along since the 1950s”.

And from Reuters, even Germany is finally realizing that financial crisis ain’t over:

ECB hardliner Weidmann comes in from the cold as deflation threatens

As recently as last November, Jens Weidmann steadfastly opposed any move by the European Central Bank to print money to buy assets and buoy the euro zone economy. No longer.

The Bundesbank chief, known for his hardline stances at the ECB and as head of the German central bank, is now ready to support such quantitative easing (QE) if he and his ECB colleagues deem it necessary. What has changed is that “the situation has changed”, according to one person familiar with the German’s thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Euro zone inflation has slowed to 0.5 percent from 0.9 percent in November, falling far below the ECB’s target of just under 2 percent and stoking fears the bloc could become stuck in a prolonged period of so-called “low-flation”, or even sink into outright deflation.

After the jump, environmental nightmares, the Koch brothers declare war on solar, Japan and U.S. unions contract frack-o-mania, the Sino-Japanese cold war amps up, snoops on your shelves and in your thermostat, docs call for legal pot, drugged soldiers, and more. . . Continue reading

Keiser Report: Critical Ukrainian perspective


If you listen to the Obama administration and their allies on both sides of the political aisle, we’re obsessed with the Ukraine because some nasty Russians are imperializing and dreaming of Joe “The Boss” Stalin via his latter-day Putinesque incarnation.

But if the U.S. is really consumed by the need to get all aggressive over massive human rights abuses, then why aren’t we threatening Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and are subjected to arbitrary whims of a religious paramilitary police — the same zealots who forced a dozen girls to burn to death simply because they tried to flee their burning quarters quarters before they had a chance to don the clerically required garb?

And why not send warships off Brunei, where it’s going to be legal this coming Tuesday to order the stoning deaths of practicing gays? Or Uganda, where men are facing life in prison simply for the way they chose to ejaculate.

In the second half of this latest episode of the Keiser Report, an Oakland, California, journalist reveals some of their deeper motivations for American concern about control of the Ukraine.

And don’t be surprised if one of the players is a major multinational with a huge and controversial presence in the San Francisco Bay Area.

From the Keiser Report:

Keiser Report: Ukraine’s Big Oil & Big Angst (E590)

Program notes:

In this episode of the Keiser Report, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert discuss American injustice in the age of the wealth gap and Weev’s hedge fund trolling. In the second half, Max interviews JP Sottile of Newsvandal.com about Big Oil and Big Ag in Ukraine. Sottile names the people and corporations hoping to exploit the Ukrainian agricultural sector.

Newsvandal’s an interesting alternative news site, and Oaklander JP Sottile raises the right questions, ones that aren’t raised prominently or at all in the dying lamestream media.

More of those not-so-random headlines. . .


We open with this grim assessment from United Press International:

One-fifth of Chinese farmland is polluted, study says

  • Nearly one-fifth of China’s available farmland is polluted.

Nearly one-fifth of China’s available farmland is polluted, a government report said.

Issued Thursday by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land Resources, it said 16.1 percent of the country’s land was polluted, as was 19.4 percent of its farmland, citing “human industrial and agricultural activities” as the cause. The report was based on a study, from 2005 to 2013, on land across China.

China’s rapid industrialization, a lack of regulations and a dominance of commercial interests were cited as the cause.

The most common pollutants are cadmium, nickel and arsenic, three materials whose presence in soil have risen sharply since 1986. The cadmium level in southwestern land increased by 50 percent since 1986, and southern Chinese soil is more severely polluted than that in the north, the report said.

And an even grimmer warning from The Guardian:

Entire marine food chain at risk from rising CO2 levels in water

  • Fish will make themselves vulnerable by being attracted to predator odour and exhibiting bolder behaviour

Escalating carbon dioxide emissions will cause fish to lose their fear of predators, potentially damaging the entire marine food chain, joint Australian and US research has found.

A study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found the behavior of fish would be “seriously affected” by greater exposure to CO2.

Researchers studied the behavior of coral reef fish at naturally occurring CO2 vents in Milne Bay, in eastern Papua New Guinea.

And from Reuters, a case of too little, too late:

Manager at Japan’s Fukushima plant admits radioactive water ‘embarrassing’

The manager of the Fukushima nuclear power plant admits to embarrassment that repeated efforts have failed to bring under control the problem of radioactive water, eight months after Japan’s prime minister told the world the matter was resolved.

Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant’s operator, has been fighting a daily battle against contaminated water since Fukushima was wrecked by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government pledged half a billion dollars last year to tackle the issue, but progress has been limited.

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are certain parts of the site where we don’t have full control,” Akira Ono told reporters touring the plant this week. He was referring to the latest blunder at the plant: channelling contaminated water to the wrong building.

From the Washington Post, yet another take on Obama’s alleged “recovery”:

Long-term unemployed struggle to find — and keep — jobs

For the long-term unemployed, finding a job is hard — but keeping one may be even harder.

New research tracking people who have been out of work for six months or longer found that 23 percent landed a job within a few months of the study. But a year later, more than a third of that group was unemployed again or out of the labor force altogether.

The findings are the latest in a bleak but growing body of literature suggesting long-term unemployment has become a trap that is difficult to escape.

Economists say that means the long-term unemployed could become a permanent underclass, left behind by the nation’s broader economic recovery.

From MediaWire, a case of censorship from afar:

NYT abides by Israeli gag order, draws questions from public editor

The New York Times delayed publication of a story this week about a young journalist and Palestinian rights advocate held by Israeli authorities, abiding by a court gag order, the Times’ public editor wrote Friday.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren told Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that the paper is bound by the gag orders:

She said that the situation is analogous to abiding by traffic rules or any other laws of the land, and that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that The Times has been subject to gag orders in the past.

The newspaper’s newsroom lawyer told Sullivan “the general understanding among legal counsel in other countries is that local law would apply to foreign media,” but said the Times hasn’t challenged the restriction in Israel.

And from the Japan Times, rebranding militarism:

Military waging popularity campaign

  • SDF charm offensive coincides with Abe’s collective defense push

Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign to soften its image featuring online popularity contests, a much-touted soprano vocalist and dating events.

The armed forces are also visible in youth culture, with young teens tuning in to “Girl und Panzer,” a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks. Japan’s most popular Twitter hashtag in 2013 was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphized warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

The image change comes as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to give the Self Defense Forces more money and scope to act as a normal military might, at a time of rising tensions with China.

From the Reykjavík Grapevine, the curious case of the peaceful latter-day Vikings:

Examining The First Use Of Lethal Force By Icelandic Police

In a large apartment block in the Árbær suburb, the police gunned down a middle-aged man early morning on December 2, 2013. Not only was this the first time the Icelandic police used lethal force, but also the first time they fired a live round in the line of duty. Considering its monumental significance in Icelandic history this incident has received remarkably little attention from the media.

Finally, via the Oakland Tribune, a criticism of the profiteering spouse of California’s plutocratic senator:

Berkeley: USPS doesn’t follow historic preservation rules, report says

An agency that oversees preservation of federally owned historic property took the United States Postal Service to task in a report issued April 17, noting “significant concerns” resulting from sales of historic post offices due to the loss to the public of facilities built for public use, and the risk to historic art and architecture.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation report “Preserving Historic Post Offices: A Report to Congress,” states that “these concerns include not just the decision to close the facilities, but the manner in which the USPS is conducting its decision-making process, the transparency of that process, and how it conducts the … consultation process” mandated under the National Historic Preservation Act.

>snip<

One of the problem areas the report noted was that the postal service did not look at alternatives to sales, such as leasing properties.

“The ACHP has no evidence that the USPS has explored (as mandated under the preservation act) any alternatives to disposal of any of the historic post offices to date,” the report said.

ACHP further criticized USPS for not using “alternative property disposal systems.”

Currently, USPS has charged the giant real estate firm CBRE with marketing historic post offices. CBRE chair is Richard Blum, UC Berkeley trustee and spouse of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco.

The report says it would be preferable to market the properties through the General Services Administration’s Office of Real Property Disposal, which “offers comprehensive services to federal agencies … in the marketing and sale of federal real estate at a cost lower than commercial vendors.”

By now, the pattern should be clear: The catastrophic consequences of our brave new neoliberal world are global, with a notable exception provided by the descendants of those who were once some of planet’s most violent predators.

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroAsianFukuDup


A very, very long compilation and perhaps the last of its sort, covering a panoply of notable developments in the economic, political, and environmental domains:.

For our first item, via the Press Gazette, proof there’s more than one way to control information:

Journalists seeking accreditation for Brit Awards asked to agree coverage of sponsor Mastercard

A PR company representing MasterCard, who are a major sponsor for tonight’s Brit Awards for pop music, appear to have asked journalists to guarantee coverage of their client as the price of attending.

Before providing two journalists from the Telegraph with accreditation to attend the event House PR has asked them to agree to a number of requests about the coverage they will give it.

They have even gone as far as to draft Twitter messages which they would like the journalists to send out – and asked that they include a mention of the marketing campaign #PricelessSurprises and @MasterCardUK.

And from the Los Angeles Times, What’s in Your Wallet?™:

Capital One says it can show up at cardholders’ homes, workplaces

  • The credit card company’s recent contract update includes terms that sound menacing and creepy.

Ding-dong, Cap One calling.

Credit card issuer Capital One isn’t shy about getting into customers’ faces. The company recently sent a contract update to cardholders that makes clear it can drop by any time it pleases.

The update specifies that “we may contact you in any manner we choose” and that such contacts can include calls, emails, texts, faxes or a “personal visit.”

As if that weren’t creepy enough, Cap One says these visits can be “at your home and at your place of employment.”

The police need a court order to pull off something like that. But Cap One says it has the right to get up close and personal anytime, anywhere.

We switch to a global headline that overshadows pretty much defining the nature of life in the era of neoliberal austerity. From Reuters:

World risks era of slow growth, high unemployment: OECD

Sweeping reforms are urgently needed to boost productivity and lower barriers to trade if the world is to avoid a new era of slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment, the OECD warned on Friday.

In its 2014 study on “Going for Growth”, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said momentum on reforms had slowed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, with much of it now piecemeal and incremental.

From CBC News, another consequence of neoliberalism comes back to bites one its leading proponents in the bottom line:

Wal-Mart cuts growth forecast as poor shoppers spend less

  • Food stamp cuts in U.S. eat into same-store sales

Recent U.S. cuts in federal food stamps for the working poor and unemployed has led Wal-Mart Stores Inc to lower the forecast for its full-year profits.

The world’s largest retailer still expects net sales growth of three to five per cent this year.

But less food stamp aid, higher taxes and tighter credit are eroding its grocery sales, as its low-income customers struggle to get by on less.  As many as a fifth of Wal-Mart’s customers rely on food stamps, according to one analyst quoted by Reuters.

From Salon, more of the same, this time from the company founded by the new publisher of the Washington Post:

Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers

  • You might find your Prime membership morally indefensible after reading these stories about worker mistreatment

Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.

Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.

Amazon is also a truly global corporation in a way that Walmart has never been, and this globalism provides insights into how Amazon responds to workplaces beyond the United States that can follow different rules. In the past three years, the harsh side of Amazon has come to light in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the United States, and Amazon’s contrasting conduct in America and Britain, on one side, and in Germany, on the other, reveals how the political economy of Germany is employee friendly in a way that those of the other two countries no longer are.

ProPublica covers the sadly predictable:

U.S. Lags Behind World in Temp Worker Protections

‘Permatemping’ cases highlight lack of U.S. protections for temp workers. Other countries limit the length of temp jobs, guarantee equal pay and restrict dangerous work.

Since the 2007-09 recession, temp work has been one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. But a ProPublica investigation into this burgeoning industry over the past year has documented an array of problems. Temps have worked for the same company for as long as 11 years, never getting hired on full-time. Companies have assigned temps to the most dangerous jobs. In several states, data showed that temps are three times more likely than regular workers to suffer amputations on the job. And even some of the country’s largest companies have relied on immigrant labor brokers and fly-by-night temp agencies that have cheated workers out of their wages.

In contrast, countries around the globe have responded to similar abuses by adopting laws to protect the growing number of temps in their workforces. These include limiting the length of temp assignments, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and restricting companies from hiring temps for hazardous tasks.

Badly Behaving Banksters pay their dues, via TheLocal.ch:

Credit Suisse to pay $196m US fine

Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse has admitted it violated US securities laws and will pay $196 million to settle the charges, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Friday.

The SEC action came as the Department of Justice investigates Credit Suisse for allegedly helping US citizens illegally avoid taxes.

The SEC said that Credit Suisse Group violated laws by providing cross-border brokerage and investment advisory services to US clients without first registering with the SEC.

According to the SEC, the Zurich-based global bank began conducting the unregistered services as early as 2002 and had collected about $82 million in fees on the accounts before completely exiting the business in mid-2013.

Belated action from United Press International:

California unveils legislation to help deal with drought

California officials Wednesday unveiled a $687.4 million plan to help the state cope with its severe drought.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders said the proposal would provide funds for direct relief for farm workers who will likely be out of a job for an extended period as growers cut back on their planting.

In addition, the legislation provides funding for water-conservation projects and a public-awareness campaign to remind Californians it is shaping up to be a long, dry summer.

The Christian Science Monitor adds context:

California drought: Farmers cut back sharply, affecting jobs and food supply

With drought limiting water deliveries from northern California and the price of irrigation skyrocketing, farmers’ fields lie fallow and the politicized debate over solutions rages.

And from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the latest image of California’s water crisis, with severity increasing with color darkness [the dark brown being the worst, “Exceptional Drought”]:

BLOG Drought

Al Jazeera America campaigns:

Push to boost wages at big LA hotels

  • City council to consider proposal to raise hourly rate to $15.37, which would be among nation’s highest if passed

Three Los Angeles City Council members have launched a bid to nearly double the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 an hour, among the highest proposed minimums nationwide.

The living wage proposal, applicable to about 11,000 workers employed by Los Angeles hotels with more than 100 rooms, would help to lift employees out of poverty and benefit the city economy, proposal supporters said on Tuesday when the proposal was introduced.

California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour with a $1 bump coming in July. It will reach $10 in 2016. Cities and counties can set a higher minimum wage. In San Francisco, for example, the minimum is $10.74 with annual cost of living increases. Nationwide, a number of cities have adopted or are considering minimum wage proposals, including a citywide $15-per-hour rate urged by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

Meanwhile, there’s another crisis in California, reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Many L.A. Unified school libraries, lacking staff, are forced to shut

Budget cuts leave about half of L.A. Unified’s elementary and middle schools without librarians, and thousands of students without books.

About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries are without librarians or aides, denying tens of thousands of students regular access to nearly $100 million worth of books, according to district data.

The crisis has exacerbated educational inequalities across the nation’s second-largest system, as some campuses receive extra money for library staff and others don’t. It has also sparked a prolonged labor conflict with the California School Employees Assn., which represents library aides.

Cashing in the Mile High City’s state with the London Telegraph:

Bumper cannabis sales in Colorado form billion-dollar industry

  • In America’s first cannabis-legal state sales are surging far ahead of predictions, bringing huge additional tax revenue

Cannabis is likely to become an annual billion-dollar legal industry in the sate of Colorado by next year after officials suggested greater volumes of the drug are being sold than anticipated.

Colorado was the first state in the US to licence and tax sales of the drug for recreational use, allowing dozens of shops to open for business on Jan 1, 2014.

In the lead up to legalisation it was estimated that sales would reach $395 million in the 2014/2015 financial year.

But in its first assessment since the New Year Governor John Hickenlooper’s budget office has dramatically increased that to $612 million.

When the $345 million in estimated sales of the drug to people with medical conditions is added that means a total of almost $1 billion.

The Hill concedes the despicably considered:

Obama drops proposal to cut Social Security from his budget

Yielding to pressure from congressional Democrats, President Obama is abandoning a proposed cut to Social Security benefits in his election-year budget.

The president’s budget request for fiscal 2015, which is due out March 4, will not call for a switch to a new formula that would limit cost-of-living increases in the entitlement program, the White House said Thursday.

“This year the administration is returning to a more traditional budget presentation that is focused on achieving the president’s vision for the best path to create growth and opportunity for all Americans, and the investments needed to meet that vision,” a White House official said.

Obama last year proposed the new formula for calculating benefits as an overture to Republicans toward a “grand bargain” on the debt.

Barry O continues his neoliberal trade crusade with BBC News:

Obama champions controversial North America-Asia trade deal

US President Barack Obama has vowed to expand trade agreements between North America and Asia, despite concerns within his own political party.

Ending a day of talks with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Mr Obama said they must keep up their “competitive advantage”.

The three countries are negotiating a major Pacific trade deal.

But Mr Obama’s Democratic allies oppose the agreement amid concerns that American jobs could be lost.

Republic Report adds significant context:

Obama Admin’s TPP Trade Officials Received Hefty Bonuses From Big Banks

Officials tapped by the Obama administration to lead the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations have received multimillion dollar bonuses from CitiGroup and Bank of America, financial disclosures obtained by Republic Report show.

Stefan Selig, a Bank of America investment banker nominated to become the Under Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce, received more than $9 million in bonus pay as he was nominated to join the administration in November. The bonus pay came in addition to the $5.1 million in incentive pay awarded to Selig last year.

Michael Froman, the current U.S. Trade Representative, received over $4 million as part of multiple exit payments when he left CitiGroup to join the Obama administration. Froman told Senate Finance Committee members last summer that he donated approximately 75 percent of the $2.25 million bonus he received for his work in 2008 to charity. CitiGroup also gave Froman a $2 million payment in connection to his holdings in two investment funds, which was awarded “in recognition of [Froman’s] service to Citi in various capacities since 1999.”

Getting together with Kyodo News:

Crucial TPP ministerial meeting begins in Singapore

Ministers from the 12 countries involved in the envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord began talks in Singapore on Saturday seeking to achieve the challenging goal of reaching a broad agreement after missing an end-of-2013 deadline.

But the momentum for an early conclusion of the ambitious U.S.-led trade initiative has been overshadowed by U.S. frustration over Japan’s reluctance to open up its agricultural market, as well as Malaysian and Vietnamese opposition to reforming state-owned firms.

During a five-day working-level meeting through Friday, each country held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of plenary sessions to bridge gaps over outstanding issues, but officials made little progress on thorny issues.

The Japan Times covers amen choristers:

Don’t fold on TPP tariffs: senators

A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman urging the Obama administration not to make tariff concessions to Japan during the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

The letter, dated Saturday and signed by 15 senators led by Michael Bennett, a Colorado Democrat, and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, “asked for assurances that the TPP negotiations will not be concluded until Japan agrees to eliminate tariff and non-tariff trade barriers for agricultural products,” the National Pork Producers Council said the same day.

Tokyo and Washington are jousting over Japanese duties on five “sacred” farm product categories — rice, beef and pork, wheat, dairy and sugar — that Tokyo wants to retain under the TPP, which is based on the principle of abolishing all tariffs.

The Obamanations continue via The Guardian:

Obama begins Mexico summit with orders lowering trade barriers

  • Before meeting Mexican and Canadian heads of state, president bypasses Congress by signing trade liberalisation orders

Barack Obama begins a North American summit in Mexico on Wednesday with a gesture of defiance toward allies in Congress who are hampering his ability to negotiate controversial trade liberalisation agreements.

In the latest in a series of so-called executive actions promised in his state of the union address, the US president will sign new measures to speed up imports and exports for businesses by reducing bureaucratic barriers.

And from one Canadian province, a modest resistance to the tenor of the times, via CBC News:

Quebec proposes rules to prevent hostile takeovers

  • Budget sets out economic agenda that includes government taking stakes in mining sector

Quebec’s Parti Québécois government proposed measures to shield businesses headquartered in Quebec from hostile takeovers in a budget tabled Thursday.

It was one in a series of proposals geared at keeping Quebec business in the province that also included plans for the government to buy direct stakes in oil and mining companies with new finds in Quebec.

The proposal comes at a time when the minority government is expected to call a provincial election and may not last long enough to pass through the legislature.

From MercoPress, deserved anxiety:

IMF concerned with risks in emerging markets from pulling back stimulus too quickly

Advanced economies, including the United States, must avoid pulling back stimulus too quickly given the weak global economic recovery and recent market volatility highlights key risks in some emerging markets, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday.

The IMF said there was scope for better coordination of central bank exit plans, something many emerging market policymakers have called for as the Federal Reserve has begun to wind back its US support for the economy.

In a briefing note prepared for upcoming Group of 20 meetings, IMF staff said the outlook for global growth was similar to its last assessment in January, with growth of about 3.75% seen for this year and 4.0% in 2015.

More from China Daily:

Growth in emerging economies to decline: IMF

Anticipated growth in emerging surplus economies, including China’s, is “expected to decline” and output gaps in advanced economies remain negative, the International Monetary Fund said in a report released ahead of this weekend’s G-20 finance meeting in Australia.

Global recovery from the recession has been “disappointingly weak,” and G-20 countries are still producing “far below” the longer-term trend, the report said.

While global economic activity picked up in the second half of 2013 due to strengthening advanced economies, trade volumes remain below trend, decline in unemployment and strong private demand “did not materialize,” the IMF said Wednesday.

Against the backdrop of slower-than-anticipated global growth, emerging economies are experiencing bouts of volatility in the financial sector, influenced in part by weakening sentiment toward emerging economies, the IMF said.

On to Europe with another red flag from BBC News:

Eurozone business growth slowed in February, PMI study suggests

Business growth in the eurozone eased this month but the bloc’s economy continued to expand at a “robust pace”, a closely watched survey suggests.

The latest Markit eurozone composite purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dipped to 52.7 from 52.9 in January. A figure above 50 indicates expansion.

Within the bloc, Germany and France continued to see contrasting fortunes. German companies saw strong growth, but activity among French firms declined for the fourth month in a row.

Another from Deutsche Welle:

Eurozone January inflation too tame to please ECB

In January, price increases in the eurozone remained well below the rate desired by the European Central Bank. The timid inflation rate for the month points to a lackluster recovery in the recession-hit currency area.

Annual inflation in the 18-nation eurozone remained tame in January, recording 0.8 percent higher than in the previous month of December, according to Monday.

In the wider 28-nation European Union, inflation fell to 0.9 percent against 1 percent at the end of last year, Eurostat said.

Compared with January 2013, however, the rates for both areas were significantly lower, coming down from 2 percent and 2.1 percent annual inflation respectively a year ago.

And from Eurostat [PDF], the graphic that tells the deeper story [click to enlarge]:

BLOG Inflate

Another indicator of creepy europoverty from The Guardian [obesity rates rise as poverty increases, with the rates of obesity highest in Europe’s unfortunately named, crisis wracked PIGS]:

Overweight children could become new norm in Europe, says WHO

As many as a third of 11-year-olds in some countries are overweight, as well as two-thirds of UK’s adult population

Being overweight is in danger of becoming the new norm for children as well as adults in Europe, the World Health Organisation warns, issuing figures showing that up to a third of 11-year-olds across the region are too heavy.

According to the EU figures, Greece has the highest proportion of overweight 11-year-olds (33%), followed by Portugal (32%), Ireland and Spain (both 30%).

More anxieties from EurActiv:

Europe tries to reverse drift towards de-industrialisation

After a lost decade, Europe is trying to reverse a decline in manufacturing which has brought industrial output to a standstill. The issue will reach the EU’s top decision-making body in March when European leaders meet for their quarterly summit in Brussels.

Over the past few years, the European Commission has been the most vocal EU institution campaigning for the continent’s industrial revival, positioning itself as a driver of competitiveness and job creation.

Within the EU executive, the commissioner for enterprise, Antonio Tajani, has emerged as the winner of an internal debate opposing supporters of industry to environmentalists, whose policies were blamed for hampering the economy.

Another warning from New Europe:

North-South gap weakens employment and social cohesion

  • The latest European Vacancy Monitor revealed a growing North-South divide

A widening gap in job opportunities between Northern and Southern EU countries is threatening the employment and social cohesion of the EU.

On 24 February, the European Commission announced the latest issue of the European Vacancy Monitor (EVM), which indicated a shortage in labour supply in countries such as Austria, Denmark Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, and an increased competition for jobs in countries such as Greece, Slovakia and Spain.

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said that the Northern-Southern employment gap indicates Eurozone’s employment and social asymmetries. “Diverging job prospects in Northern and Southern Europe underline mismatches in the European labour market, linked also to Eurozone asymmetries. Labour mobility might help to reduce those imbalances. Tools supporting workers mobility within the European labour market such as EURES are available to help job seekers find job opportunities,” Commissioner Andor said.

A shift in sentiment from EUobserver:

Poll: Socialists to top EU elections, boost for far-right

Europe’s socialists are set to top the polls in May’s European elections, according to the first pan-EU election forecast.

The projections, released by Pollwatch Europe on Tuesday (19 February), give the parliament’s centre-left group 221 out of 751 seats on 29 percent of the vote, up from the 194 seats it currently holds.

For their part, the centre-right EPP would drop to 202 seats from the 274 it currently holds on 27 percent of the vote across the bloc. If correct, it would be the first victory for the Socialists since 1994.

EurActiv takes a hit:

Financiers snipe at draft EU law against money laundering

Representatives of financial transactions services have criticised harshly the EU’s draft legislation to fight money laundering which will go through its first parliamentary vote today (20 February) and enjoys the support of the anti-corruption champion, Transparency International.

The European Commission proposal, tabled in February last year, is aimed at tightening EU rules on financial transactions in a bid to step up the fight against money laundering and terrorism funding.

One of the main elements of the proposal is the introduction of a mechanism to name the beneficial owners of companies, in order to prevent the illicit activities which are often carried out under anonymity.

The proposal also includes requirements to increase customer due diligence and tightening the rules obliging financial companies to identify their clients and the legitimacy of their activities.

Europe Online pulls back:

Iceland moves to withdraw EU application

Iceland’s centre-right government is to seek parliamentary approval to withdraw its application to join the European Union, opting not to restart accession talks that were put on ice a year ago.

A bill proposing the withdrawal was sent to parliament late Friday and was due to be debated next week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson told dpa on Saturday.

The move came after the parliamentary caucuses of the ruling parties – the centrist Progressive Party and the conservative Independence Party – voted Friday to withdraw the application.

In comments on the proposal quoted by online news site Visir.is, the government said it “did not have a support base” to complete the accession process.

Off to Britain, with a major policy reversal of the post-equine escape animal enclosure locking sort from Sky News:

Cameron: UK Ready To Fund New Flood Defences

  • David Cameron tells Sky News he is ready to open the Government’s “chequebook” to build new flood defences.

David Cameron has suggested that his “money is no object” pledge on the flood relief effort could be extended to cover the costs of new defences.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, the Prime Minister said he was ready to take out his “chequebook” following a major review of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.

“You’ve got to look at where the floods have been this time, compared with 2007, compared with 2003,” he said.

From the London Telegraph, the usual result:

Wages rise but still below inflation

  • Pay increase and a fall in unemployment a boost for the Bank of England

Wages are still failing to keep up with the rising cost of living despite climbing at a faster rate in the final quarter of last year.

Average weekly pay including bonuses edged up 1.1pc to £478 in the three months to the end of December, up from the 0.9pc rate of increase in the three months to the end of November, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

However, the Government’s preferred inflation measure, the consumer prices index (CPI), currently stands at 1.9pc – below the 2pc target – despite a surprise 0.1 point fall on Tuesday.

Another austerian consequence from The Observer:

Cash-strapped older women are forced back to work

  • Older women taking on more jobs, study finds, but pay gap between the sexes is growing wider

More than three-quarters of the rise in female employment, which hit record levels last December, is the result of women aged over 50 taking on jobs, a study has found.

A report by the TUC to be released this week has established that 2,278,000 more women are now working than in 1992, and that 1,645,000 (72%) of these are aged 50 or over.

Last week the government welcomed news that more women were in work, with the proportion – 67.2% – the highest since records began 43 years ago. The TUC study pinpoints how many older women have felt the need to return to work or to continue working until later in life, for a combination of reasons. These include the rising cost of living, the increase in the state pension age and the fall in value of workplace pensions.

While much of the rise in female employment is due to the greater number of over-50s in the population, the rate of employment has risen too. In 1992, 50.7% of women in the 50-64 age group were economically “inactive”, compared with 36.8% today.

The Observer follows hunger in posh places:

‘Most desirable’ district in the country has three food banks

  • In wealthy towns, families hit by falling incomes and benefit cuts are increasingly being forced to rely on charity handouts

Volunteers have sounded the alarm over a growing reliance on food banks in one of the richest areas in Britain.

Weekly earnings in Hart in Hampshire, recently named as the most desirable district in the country for quality of life, are a third higher than the national average. But the district also has three food banks, which have given out more than 1,000 emergency food parcels in the past six months.

Anti-poverty campaigners say that, even in wealthy areas such as Hart, benefit changes and low wages are creating growing pockets of desperate need.

EurActiv readies the trial:

Britain sets out new test to limit EU migrant benefits

Britain laid out new rules on Wednesday (19 February) designed to limit the access that migrants from other European Union states have to the country’s welfare system.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to curb immigration into Britain in an effort to quell concerns about migrants entering the country to claim benefits, referred to as ‘benefits tourism’. The move may also stop voters defecting to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.

The new test, due to come into effect on March 1, sets a minimum income threshold to determine whether a migrant working in the UK should have access to the wider suite of benefits that comes with being classed as a worker rather than a jobseeker.

But the Usual Suspects are doing quite well, thankee kindly. Via Reuters, a case of Banksters Behaving Brazenly:

HSBC to announce bonuses totaling $4 billion: report

HSBC will announce staff bonuses totaling just under 2.4 billion pounds ($4 billion) globally for 2013 and is expected to report a significant rise in pretax profit, Sky News reported on its website on Saturday without citing its sources.

Referring to an unnamed source close to the bank, Sky also said Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver will receive a 1.8 million pound bonus as part of an overall pay deal worth more than 7 million pounds, though this would be less than his previous year pay deal of 7.4 million.

Europe’s biggest bank is expected to announce the size of its bonus pool on Monday along with its yearly results. Bonus payments remain a sensitive issue as many Britons still blame banks for the 2008 financial crisis, after which the state was forced to bail out RBS and Lloyds.

On to Scandinavia and some hard times intolerance from TheLocal.no:

Three men charged for racist attack in Norway

Three men in their twenties have been charged for assaulting a black man in northern Norway, allegedly telling him “we do not like immigrants in Verdal” as they hit him on the back with a snow shovel.

Jacob Kuteh, who was born in Liberia, was hospitalized after the  attack, which took place on Saturday night.

Kuteh claimed the men hit him, strangled him and kicked him in the head, before hitting him with a snow shovel, all the while telling him, “we hate you. We’ll take you.”

“I’ve lived here for ten years and have never experienced anything like this,” Kuteh told VG newspaper. “I have kids that go to school here and it’s no fun at all that someone has suddenly come and told me that they do not like the colour of my skin.”

Sweden next, with a demographic note from TheLocal.se:

Immigrants behind boom in Sweden’s population

The population of Sweden saw the biggest yearly increase in 70 years last year, according to new statistics, thanks largely to the almost 120,000 immigrants who arrived throughout the year.

Sweden’s population on the last day of 2013 was 9,644,864 – a 0.93 percent hike from 2012. The total increase was the largest since 1946, and statisticians at Statistics Sweden (Statistiska centralbyrån – SCB) marked it down to a record-high level of immigration.

In total, 115,845 immigrants arrived in Sweden in 2013, many from Syria and Somalia. The figure is the highest Sweden has ever had in a one-year period. The men outnumbered the women by around 5,000.

TheLocal.se again, this time with a contrarian finding:

Romanian beggars cleared in court

A district court in central Sweden has cleared three Romanian nationals of begging following a previous indictment, saying they did not need the permission of the police to beg.

The trio had previously been prosecuted for begging on the streets of Södertälje, Stockholm county, in January. In court it was debated whether the three individuals had broken any local laws regarding the collection of money.

Local newspaper Länstidningen said that the case was unique as the issue has never been tested before by law.

According to local Södertälje regulations police permission is required for the “collection of money in boxes or similar.” In court the example of street musicians, who don’t require police permission, was raised and comparisons were made between the beggars and street performers.

And more academic austerity ahead with TheLocal.se:

Borg to cut student grants and pension perks

With autumn elections on the horizon, Sweden’s Finance Minister Anders Borg said his government would cut student grants and make alcohol and tobacco more expensive, part of a budget plan to fill Sweden’s coffers.

“You shouldn’t stoke the fire in good times,” Borg told reporters in Stockholm on Thursday as he mapped out the centre-right government coalition’s budget prognosis for the near- and medium term. He said he no longer saw the need to use stimulus measures to keep Sweden’s economy buoyant, and argued that it was time to strengthen public finances.

“Sweden needs proper levees in place before the next crisis,” Borg said, adding that Sweden’s reliance on liquidity and its high household indebtedness was “a big element of uncertainty in the Swedish economy”.

Off to the Netherlands with stagnation from DutchNews.nl:

House prices stabilise but building permits reach 60-year low

House prices were down just 0.5 percent in January, compared with January 2013, showing house prices have now stabilised, the national statistics office CBS says on Friday.

Month on month, there was a 0.4% rise in house prices.

House prices are now in line with 11 years ago, after reaching a peak in August 2008, the CBS says. Houses have gone down an average of 20% in price since then.

At the same time, the CBS says the number of permits for new houses reached a record low of 26,000 in 2013. This is 30% down on 2012 and 70% down on 2008. Permits for new housing have not been so low since 1953, the CBS says.

Germany next, and a pain in the wallet from TheLocal.de:

Wages fall for first time since crash

Wages in Germany fell by an average of 0.2 percent last year, the first drop since the 2009 economic crisis, the federal statistics office said on Thursday.

The calculation was in terms of the real buying power of wages, allowing for inflation, and the fall bodes ill for efforts to fire up domestic consumption to boost recovery in Europe’s biggest economy.

Germany has relied mainly on exports to drive growth.

Citing preliminary results, the statistics office said that nominal wages in 2013 were up 1.3 percent from the previous year, but that consumer prices rose faster, at 1.5 percent, over the same period.

“One reason for the decline in real wages in 2013 was a decline in bonuses which are frequently performance-related,” said a statement by the Wiesbaden-based agency which is known as Destatis.

Deutsche Welle tracks a booming business:

Arms manufacturer Rheinmetall logs lower profit but higher orders

Germany’s biggest arms maker, Rheinmetall, has defied weak defense spending in Europe in 2013 to surprise investors with higher-than-expected earnings. A massive order backlog for 2014 boosted company shares further.
Panzer

Last year, Rheinmetall’s performance had been stable, with consolidated sales of 4.6 billion euros ($6.3 billion). Before special items, Rheinmettal also boasted an operating profit of 213 million euros, the German defense and automotive industry conglomerate announced as it released figures for its 2013 fiscal year on Wednesday.

Rheinmetall’s 2013 operating result was about 55 million euros lower than in 2012, but higher than forecast for 2013, the Düsseldorf-based company announced. The decrease was the result of restructuring measures to the tune of 86 million euros, as well as a further 15 million euros in expenses for strategic portfolio measures, Rheinmetall aannounced.

Annual sales also fell in 2013, however, with the 2 percent decline mainly being a result of unfavorable exchange rates for the euro.

And a point we’ve made before, from EUbusiness:

Germany has ‘unfair’ edge with low salaries: minister

Germany’s low salaries have given Europe’s biggest economy an “unfair” competitive advantage over its partners and must be corrected, a junior German minister has said.

Michael Roth, state secretary for European Affairs, was commenting on Germany’s record trade surplus, which surged to nearly 200 billion euros ($270 billion) last year, and has seen Berlin placed under EU scrutiny.

He said in an interview with AFP Thursday that imbalances had appeared among EU members and there “was a duty not only for countries running a deficit but also for Germany to reduce them”.

The comments by the Social Democrat politician differ from the stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, who disagree that Berlin has a problem with its trade surplus despite it consistently exceeding EU limits.

France next, and a uniquely Gallic form of action from Europe Online:

New “boss-napping” incident at a French factory

Workers at a French factory were holding three managers captive for a second day Thursday, after its owners announced that it would be shut down.

The managing director, technical director and financial director of Depalor, a company that produces wood panels in the north-eastern Lorraine region, were being held in an office building.

A trade union representative told France Info radio that the three were barred from leaving until the CEO of parent company Swiss Krono Group came to discuss redundancy terms for the 142 workers.

The incident is the second case of “boss-napping” in France within two months.

And the hidden disclosed, via TheLocal.ch:

France says thousands declare Swiss accounts

The French government says that nearly 16,000 people have declared funds hidden abroad after Switzerland curtailed its vaunted banking secrecy.

France’s Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Wednesday that the government was on track to collect 230 million euros ($316 million) from only 2,621 of the cases.

He told the finance committee of the lower house National Assembly that 80 percent of the newly declared accounts were from Switzerland, which has curtailed its banking secrecy traditions under international pressure.

France 24 ponies up:

French government, China’s Dongfeng to invest in Peugeot

Peugeot Citroën, which has been manufacturing automobiles in France for more than 100 years, has agreed to a deal that will see both the French government and Chinese carmaker Dongfeng buy large stakes in the struggling company.

Peugeot announced on Wednesday that its board had approved the agreement, in which the French government and Dongfeng will each invest €800 million ($1.1 billion) in exchange for 14 percent stakes in the company.

The move marks a huge transition for the carmaker, which until now has been controlled by the Peugeot family. Under the agreement, the family’s 25 percent stake and 38 percent of voting rights will now be reduced to equal the French government and Dongfeng’s stakes in the company.

On to Switzerland and a case of resigned to not being resigned from TheLocal.ch:

German professor quits over Swiss ‘xenophobia’

A German professor at the Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) has made a splash in the media for quitting his job over the Swiss vote to limit immigration.

Christopher Höcker, who had taught at the university’s Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture since 1999, told his students this week he was stepping down.

The decision by Swiss voters in a February 9th referendum to narrowly support quotas for immigrants from the European Union was the last straw for the 57-year-old German citizen.

“I do not want more exposure to the increasingly xenophobic climate in Switzerland,” Höcker told 20 Minuten newspaper.

TheLocal.ch delays:

EU not compromising but gives Switzerland time

The EU said Thursday it cannot compromise on the principle of freedom of movement but will allow Switzerland time to find a solution after a controversial referendum approved immigration curbs.

“It is a serious . . . not a minor change which we have to assess calmly,” chief operating officer of the EU external affairs service David O’Sullivan said of the referendum outcome.

“Freedom of movement is a fundamental core value” of the European Union and as such is not open for negotiation, O’Sullivan said after talks with Yves Rossier, his counterpart in the Swiss department of foreign affairs.

On to Spain and onto the streets with United Press International:

Spanish marchers protest job cuts, law against protesting

Demonstrators in at least seven Spanish cities have called for an end to a “gagging law” that set large fines for protest marches.

The protesters were joined by factory workers due to be laid off and groups seeking to preserve access to universal healthcare, Think Spain reported. Monday.

The anti-demonstration law, which affects even peaceful protests, calls for fines of $41,000 to $823,000 for anyone staging the marches.

The protests, which drew thousands of supporters in each of the cities, also want the Spanish Parliament to reject a proposed law restricting abortions.

From Spanish Property Insight, the one group of immigrants eagerly sought:

First Chinese property investors get their “Golden Visas”

Chinese nationals investing in property in Spain are starting to get their residency visas, according to Spanish press reports.

A businesswoman from Shanghai who spent €520,000 on flats in Barcelona and Madrid has become one of the first Chinese nationals to get a Spanish residency via the new “Golden Visa” law that offers Spanish residency permits to non-EU nationals in return for real estate investments of €500,000 or more.

She invested in Spanish property via the Emigration Centre at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), which has a programme to help Chinese nationals invest in residency schemes abroad.

On to Lisbon and yet another austerian misery demanded from the Portugal News:

EU calls for Portugal wages to fall by a further 5%

The European Commission has argued that Portugal needs a further 5% average reduction in wages to ensure a balance between the unemployment rate and wage rates.

Portugal’s government responded by saying that it continued to disagree with that view, arguing that recent increases in exports show that wage adjustment in the private sector has been “sufficient”.

In its report on the 10th regular review of Portugal’s economic and financial assistance programme, released on Thursday, the European Union executive states that “Portugal needs wage moderation sufficient to absorb unemployment” and outlines some estimates.

According to the commission’s calculations, “a reduction of one percentage point in the unemployment rate demands a reduction in real wages of about 2.4%” – which it said means real wages falling 5% if the gap is to be closed between the current jobless rate and that at which wage levels will not lead to new increases in unemployment.

Deutsche Welle takes us to Italy and the latest regime:

Italy swears in its youngest-ever prime minister, Matteo Renzi

  • Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and his cabinet have been sworn into office at a ceremony in Rome. The new government is the youngest in the recent Italian history.

The swearing-in of the prime minister took place at a ceremony in Rome under the auspices of Napolitano.

At 39, Renzi is the youngest-ever person to take the reins in the eurozone’s third largest economy, and his cabinet, with an average age of 47.8 years, is also the most youthful in recent Italian history.

As a result, the government is facing widespread skepticism as to whether it has the political maturity to cope with the challenges currently facing the country.

And the road’s already getting bumpy, via TheLocal.it:

Grillo declares ‘war’ as Berlusconi backs Renzi

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo has lashed out at Matteo Renzi, saying the prime minister designate is “not credible” and declaring a political “war” against the country’s prospective new leader.

Since being nominated for the premiership on Monday, Renzi has been meeting with party leaders to gain the political backing needed to push urgent reforms through parliament.

While some meetings, such as one with Go Italy (Forza Italia) leader Silvio Berlusconi, have gone relatively well, the same cannot be said of Renzi’s meeting with Grillo.

Visible to all by a live internet stream, their meeting appeared to be a dialogue of the deaf, with neither side appearing interested in the other.

ANSA raises an alarm:

Italian recovery slow, growth stalling, say industrialists

  • Urgent need to address competitiveness, demand and bank credit

Italy’s economic recovery is extremely slow and recent data shows that industrial production in the eurozone’s third-largest economy is close to stalling, according to a new report released on Wednesday by Italian employers’ association Confindustria.

“(The recovery is) moving ahead very slowly, almost at a standstill”, Confindustria’s economists said. “These are the harsh facts of the Italian economy”, with employment and industrial production data “confirming that the pick up from the extremely deep hole that has been dug by the recession is extremely slow”.

Fourth-quarter gross domestic product data, which showed the economy expanded 0.1% in the last three months of 2013, was “lower that expected” and “confirms the extreme weakness of the recovery”, according to the report drawn up by Confindustria’s economic research unit which is headed by economist Luca Paolazzi.

And another call for an increasingly mooted move from ANSA:

Re-open cannabis debate, hurt mafia, says ex-health minister

  • Ban on marijuana doesn’t work, says top oncologist Veronesi

It’s time that Italy re-opened the debate on liberalizing marijuana use, to cut out drug traffickers, permit its medical use, while acknowledging the current ban doesn’t work, former health minister Umberto Veronesi said Thursday.

In an opinion article published in La Repubblica newspaper, Veronesi, a prominent oncologist, said that liberalizing the drug would take away power from the mafia and other criminals who now profit greatly from its cultivation and sale.

It would make marijuana more safe for users, including those who need it for pain relief, added Veronesi, whose comments come amid debate about Italy’s illegal-drug laws.

And from New Europe, departures from Bucharest:

Romanian ministers resign

Romania is in the throws of a political crisis after two ministers from the junior party in the ruling coalition resigned.

Finance Minister Daniel Chitoiu and Economy Minister Andrei Gerea, both Liberal Party members, stepped down on Wednesday after Prime Minister Victor Ponta refused to accept the Liberals’ nomination of Klaus Johannis, the popular mayor of Sibiu city, as interior minister. The position, now vacant, was recently held by another Liberal Party official.

Ponta, leader of the Social Democratic Party, will temporarily head the finance portfolio. He named a party colleague as interim economy minister.

After the jump, the latest Greek debacles, unmentionable anxieties in Russia, the latest from Kyiv, an African GMO invasion, the latest turmoil from Latin America, India swings to the right, Thai troubles, worries down under, Chinese alarm bells, Abenomics on the rocks, nucelear woes in the U.S.A., Big Ag hits a roadblock, fracking woes go global, a Spanish snail invasion, and a globl arming cooler. . .plus Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukunews


We begin today’s collection of news political, economic, environmental, and nuclear — including the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now! — with a take on the merger de jour from Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer:

BLOG Siers

From the Washington Post, consequences of enserfing students:

Student debt may hurt housing recovery by hampering first-time buyers

The growing student loan burden carried by millions of Americans threatens to undermine the housing recovery’s momentum by discouraging, or even blocking, a generation of potential buyers from purchasing their first homes.

Recent improvements in the housing market have been fueled largely by investors who snapped up homes in the past few years. But that demand is waning as prices climb and mortgage rates rise. An analysis by the Mortgage Bankers Association found that loan applications for home purchases have slipped nearly 20 percent in the past four months compared with the same period a year earlier.

First-time buyers, the bedrock of the housing market, are not stepping up to fill the void. They have accounted for nearly a third of home purchases over the past year, well below the historical norm, industry figures show. The trend has alarmed some housing experts, who suspect that student loan debt is partly to blame. That debt has tripled from a decade earlier, to more than $1 trillion, while wages for young college graduates have dropped.

A decline from the Los Angeles Times:

Builder confidence down sharply in February

Builder confidence in the new home market plunged in February, a combination of debilitating weather and few lots available for construction, a trade group said.

The National Assn. of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index tumbled 10 points from January to a seasonally adjusted level of 46, the largest drop since the index launched in 1985. A level higher than 50 means more builders see the market for new, single-family homes as good rather than poor.

From the Los Angeles Times again, another decline:

Coca-Cola announces $1 billion in cuts as demand, profit slide

Coca-Cola Co., faced with tepid demand and a drop in fourth-quarter earnings, said Tuesday it was initiating a $1-billion cost-cutting campaign to improve profitability.

The world’s largest beverage company said Tuesday that profit fell 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Investors were selling on the news. Shares of the Atlanta company were down $1.46, or nearly 4%, to $37.47 at 9 a.m. PST.

Another sort of decline from the Associated Press:

After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?

Republicans fighting a yearslong unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee painted a grim picture in the days leading up to last week’s vote. They said if Chattanooga employees joined the United Auto Workers, jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.

Now that workers have rejected the UAW in a close vote, attention turns to whether the GOP can fulfill its promises that keeping the union out means more jobs will come rolling in, the next great chapter in the flourishing of foreign auto makers in the South.

Regardless of what political consequences, if any, Republicans would face if that fails to happen, the Volkswagen vote established a playbook for denying the UAW its goal of expanding into foreign-owned plants in the region, which the union itself has called the key to its long-term future.

CNBC posits the negative:

$10.10 minimum wage could hit total employment: CBO

Raising the U.S. federal minimum wage to $10.10, as President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress are proposing, could result in about 500,000 jobs being lost by late 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated on Tuesday.

The non-partisan CBO also said that increasing the hourly wage could reduce U.S. budget deficits by a small amount for several years, but then increase them slightly in later years.

The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Democrats who control the U.S. Senate could try to advance minimum wage legislation as early as next month.

Xinhua invests:

Foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury debt hits record in December

Foreign buyers continued to increase their holdings of U.S. Treasury securities for a fifth straight month in December, even though the two largest holders of U.S. public debt trimmed their shares, U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday.

The total foreign holdings rose to 5.79 trillion U.S. dollars in December, up 1.4 percent from that in November, showed the Treasury International Capital report. The figure surpassed the all-time high hit in March of 5.73 trillion dollars.

China, the largest foreign buyer of the Treasury debt, trimmed its holdings by 47.8 billion dollars to 1.27 trillion dollars in December, its first reduction in the past four months, the report showed.

Japan, the second largest holder, sold 3.9 billion dollars to 1. 18 trillion dollars in December, according to the figures.

Salon disgraces:

Virginia county sheriff hosting anti-Muslim training by disgraced conspiracy theorist

  • John Guandolo says Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.” Now he’s instructing law officers

The Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia is planning to host a three-day training by John Guandolo, a notorious Muslim-basher and conspiracy theorist who resigned from the FBI before he could be investigated for misconduct, according to promotional materials.

It’s hard to believe that the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office would knowingly associate itself with such a disreputable character, who regularly attacks the U.S. government, claims that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency is a secret Muslim agent for the Saudi government and says that American Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

Guandolo joined the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division in the wake of 9/11, but by 2005 he was posing as a driver for a “star witness” in the corruption case of former Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA). He made “inappropriate sexual advances” to that witness and soon was having an “intimate relationship…that he thought could damage an investigation.” He also unsuccessfully solicited the witness for a $75,000 donation to an organization he supported and carried on extramarital affairs with female FBI agents.

And the Los Angeles Times talks a deal:

U.S.-Mexico-Canada talks will focus on strengthening economic ties

Mexico is expected to avoid discussions about its drug-related violence and focus on its oil and gas industry, along with border and immigration issues.

Twenty years after their countries signed a landmark regional trade agreement, the presidents of the United States, Mexico and Canada will meet this week to attempt to strengthen the economic ties envisioned in that pact, correct the omissions and find ways to expand.

Trade and commerce are expected to dominate the agenda when President Obama meets with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts — President Enrique Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — in the Mexican city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City, on Wednesday.

Large squads of soldiers and police were patrolling Toluca, the capital of Mexico state, and blocking off major roadways Monday. Schools in the central city were suspending classes. Leftist political parties were planning demonstrations, with several hundred people marching from Mexico City to Toluca.

EUbusiness covers another deal in the making:

EU, US reps meet ahead of free-trade talks

US Trade Ambassador Michael Froman received his European counterpart Karel De Gucht in Washington Monday, preparing for next month’s fourth round of talks on creating the world’s largest free-trade area.

The two sides have been in discussion since last year over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to expand trade, investment and regulatory cooperation between the two huge economies.

Froman and De Gucht spoke briefly to reporters in Washington before two days of closed-door meetings with the EU trade commissioner, meant to take stock of progress made during three past rounds of negotiations, which wrapped up in December.

On to Europe and a call from The Guardian:

Eurozone countries should form United States of Europe, says EC vice-president

  • Viviane Reding calls for full fiscal and political union for 18 eurozone countries but says UK should remain apart

A celebrated call by Winston Churchill for the creation of a “United States of Europe” was revived on Monday by a leading member of the European commission who said the 18 eurozone countries should form a full fiscal and political union.

Viviane Reding, a vice-president of the commission, told Cambridge University’s law faculty that “bold reforms” were needed to avoid tensions across Europe as new governance arrangements were introduced to stabilise the single currency.

A lop-sided take from New Europe:

EU industry: Towards an unbalanced recovery

  • The output of the EU industry remains below the pre-crisis levels

The EU industry lacks of a cohesive growth as according to a report by the European Commission most sectors have still not regained their pre-crisis level of output and significant differences exist between sectors and Member States.

The data for the EU industry shows a mixed picture. The economic output of the manufacturing sector has declined significantly, but important differences between sectors remain. According to the “EU Industrial structure report 2013: Competing in Global Value Chains,” the pharmaceuticals sector has experienced sustained growth since the start of the financial crisis, while high-technology manufacturing industries have, in general, not been impacted to the same extent as other industries.

Moreover, EU manufacturing output indicates significant differences between Member States. Strong recoveries can only be seen in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic States, which all regained and exceeded their pre-recession peaks. On the other hand, the EU manufacturing recovery remains below the pre-recession levels in 20 Member States.

Spiegel diagnoses:

The Swiss Virus: Europe Gripped by Immigration Worries

  • The Swiss aren’t the only ones in Europe deeply concerned about immigration. Many across the Continent would also like to see limits placed on newcomers from elsewhere in the EU. Europe must remain firm, but right-wing populists stand to benefit.

Greeks, Italians and French blame economic policy from Brussels for their difficulties. At the same time, Germans and other Northern Europeans are afraid they will ultimately be forced to cough up for EU countries to the south. What some call “reform” and others call “austerity” is driving a wedge between Europeans. And now, the issue of free movement across the EU is being thrown into the discussion because many are concerned they could lose out on the employment market. But questioning the EU principle allowing people to choose where they wish to live and work is akin to questioning the entire European project.

On to Britain and the austerian price of a flooding disaster, via The Guardian:

Thames flood defences among schemes hit by coalition funding cuts

  • Avoidable damage estimated to cost £3bn as projects at Heathrow, Dawlish and Somerset Levels delayed or downsized

Planned defences along the length of the flood-hit Thames Valley were delayed and downsized after government funding cuts following the last election, the Guardian can reveal.

The schemes, totalling millions of pounds, include projects near Heathrow, near David Cameron’s country home in Oxfordshire and in the constituency of the minister who oversaw annual flood budget cuts of almost £100m.

West Drayton, near Heathrow, the scene of significant flooding in west London, was in line for £2.8m of funding to build up concrete and earth bank defences by 2014-15. But following budget cuts, the Arklyn Kennels scheme was downgraded to a £1m scheme and delayed until at least 2018-19.

At Penton Hook, on the Thames near flood-affected Staines in Surrey, a £5.6m dredging scheme was due to be completed by the end of March 2014, but has received just £2m to date. The scheme was also intended to clean up a site where contaminated silt dredged from the river was dumped.

From New Europe, a warning:

Reding: UK would lose influence outside EU

European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding warned that the EU would lose influence outside the EU and that all the talk of opt-out by the British government distracts from the real issue which is to find solutions for the EU economy.

“The truth is, outside the EU, the UK would lose influence. If the UK were to leave the EU, it would no longer be able to influence EU regulation. It would have to live with the rules decided on by the other EU countries,” Reding told an audience in Cambridge on February 17.

“To get access to the Single Market, you have to apply its rules. Just ask the Norwegians. It’s difficult to see why the other Member States would grant the UK unfettered access to their markets without requiring it to apply the EU’s rules,” she added.

The federalist Commissioner also added that the rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservatives – who want to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and have promised a referendum on the issue in 2017 should they win the next election – distracts from the real issues facing the bloc.

And from CNNMoney, the latest instance of Banksters Behaving Badly:

Ex-Barclays bankers charged with Libor rigging

Prosecutors have charged three former Barclays bankers in connection with the rigging of global interest rates.

The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office, which prosecutes complex cases of fraud, said Monday that it’s started criminal proceedings against Peter Charles Johnson, Jonathan James Mathew and Stylianos Contogoulas in connection with manipulating the London interbank offered rate, or Libor.

All three have been charged with conspiring to defraud between June 2005 and August 2007.

Pondering a change of course with the London Telegraph:

Interest rate rise ‘a last resort’ to cool housing market

  • David Miles, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), describes rate rises as a “blunt tool” that will only be used if other policies fail

The Bank of England will only use interest rate rises to cool the housing market if its financial stability toolkit is “not up to the job”, one of its policymakers has said.

David Miles, an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), said rate rises were a “big stick” that would only be used as a last resort.

“We do have, as the last line of defence, the blunt instrument, the big stick of interest rates,” he told Bloomberg TV. “If you did get into a situation where the tools that the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) have seem not up to the job of stopping overheating in the housing market, we would then turn to the blunter instrument of using bank rate.

“We’re a long way from that.”

The Guardian delivers a jeremiad:

New Catholic cardinal renews attack on ‘disgraceful’ UK austerity cuts

  • Roman Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is to be made a cardinal by Pope Francis, inundated with messages of support

The leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales says he has been inundated with messages of support after branding the government’s austerity programme a disgrace for leaving so many people in destitution.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s Today programme to mark his imminent appointment as a cardinal by Pope Francis, Archbishop Vincent Nichols expanded upon his comments to the Telegraph when he criticised the government’s welfare reforms as “punitive”.

“The voices that I hear express anger and despair … Something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in that destitute situation and depend solely on the handouts of the charity of food banks,” Nichols said.

In his Telegraph interview, published on Saturday, Nichols accused ministers of tearing apart the safety net that protects people from hunger and destitution. He said since he made those comments he had been “inundated with accounts from people … saying there are indeed many cases where people are left without benefits, without any support, for sometimes weeks on end”.

On to Sweden and a case of that Swiss fever from TheLocal.se:

Roma migrants evicted from Stockholm site

Officials evicted all remaining Romanian migrants from a campsite in southern Stockholm on Monday morning, just days after over 100 campers were given a free bus ride home.

The Swedish Enforcement Agency (Kronofogden) carried out the eviction in Högdalen, a suburb in the southern reaches of Stockholm, at 9am on Monday, just days after a bus load of the campers went home.

“All I know is that it’s more or less empty,” Henrik Brånstad, spokesman at the agency, told the TT news agency. “Many have apparently moved to other places while others have jumped at the chance of a bus ride home to Romania.”

Over 100 EU-migrants accepted the bus tickets home, many of whom had earned money begging in the Swedish capital. One of the buses crashed in southern Sweden on Sunday morning on the way to Bucharest. Only the driver was injured.

Rumbles from the right head to court with TheLocal.se:

First charges filed for Stockholm Nazi attack

Seven people were charged on Monday in the wake of a neo-Nazi attack on anti-racist demonstrators in Stockholm last year. But prosecutors say more indictments are on the way.

Charges were filed on Monday against people who took part in a violent riot in Stockholm’s Kärrtorp suburb in December last year. Four of the suspects were charged with violent rioting (våldsamt upplopp) and hate speech (hets mot folkgrupp) and another three were charged with instigating violent rioting. According to the indictment, several of those charged threw bottles, rocks, and firecrackers.

“There will be more charges filed than just these, altogether there were around 30 people detained after the demonstration,” Ulf Sundström of the Söderort police told the TT news agency.

And TheLocal.se, and a word for the teacher:

Teacher salaries too low in Sweden: OECD

Teacher salaries in Sweden are lower than in countries with higher–performing schools, according to an extra OECD evaluation requested by the government on the heels of Sweden’s dismal performance in the latest Pisa rankings.

“The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers,” Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Deputy Director of Education and Skills, told reporters at a press briefing in Stockholm on Tuesday.

“In higher-performing countries, teachers have higher salaries but also clear career possibilities.”

The analysis, which marks the first time ever that Sweden has asked the OECD for extra help in evaluating its school system, also found that Sweden has relatively high costs per student, with only nine other OECD countries spending more money per pupil.

The Associated Press covers a Norwegian whiner:

Breivik hunger strike threat: wants bigger gym

Convicted Norwegian mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik has threatened to go on hunger strike unless he gets access to better video games, a sofa and a larger gym.

In a letter received by The Associated Press Tuesday, Breivik writes the hunger strike will continue until his demands are met or he dies. Breivik’s lawyer Tord Jordet confirmed the letter was authentic and said his client is waiting for a response from prison authorities before starting the hunger strike.

Breivik is serving a 21-year prison sentence, which can be extended when it expires, for killing 77 people in bomb and gun massacres in 2011.

Among his demands, Breivik wants the lifting of restrictions on communications and improved air conditions. He wants the available PlayStation 2 console replaced by a modern version.

Germany next and a call for a New Deal from Deutsche Welle:

IW think tank urges change in German investment policy

A leading German economic think tank has announced that massive investments in infrastructure are needed so as not to lose out to competitors. The institute found many companies were worried about possible disadvantages.

In its study released Monday, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) said despite a relatively good infrastructure many companies polled were increasingly worried about a deterioration of the country’s road network.

They also voiced concerns about the future state of the energy grid, with the shift to renewables currently posing enormous problems and a necessary expansion of the network facing community-level resistance.

Companies also worried about broadband Internet connections not being created fast enough in all regions. About two-thirds of the 2,800 firms polled reported that they were already experiencing disadvantages as a result of infrastructure problems.

The research institute calculated that all in all some 120 billion euros ($164.6 billion) would have to be invested into infrastructure over the next 10 years, to be spent evenly on road maintenance and extension, the broadband communications network and the national energy grid, with a major new north-south line.

From TheLocal.de, a cartel cabal busted:

Sugar giants fined €280m for price fixing

German consumers have been paying over the odds for sugar for years, it emerged on Tuesday, when authorities fined Germany’s three biggest sugar firms €280 million for illegally fixing prices.

Pfeiler & Langen, Südzucker and Nordzucker, along with seven unnamed individuals were found to have been fixing prices, sales territories and quotas between them for many years, the Federal Cartel Office in Bonn said.

The three German sugar producers agreed on various strategies between them aimed at pushing up sugar prices across the board, whether they sold to households or the food industry.

The manufacturers agreed “to keep to their traditional sales territories and not get in the way of the other cartel members,” said Cartel Office president Andreas Mundt in a statement.

And Europe Online notes a decline:

German investor confidence posts surprise fall in February

German investor confidence posted a surprise decline in February over concerns of a slowdown in the United States and uncertainties in emerging economies, a key survey showed Tuesday.

The closely watched indicator gauging the mood among analysts and institutional investors slipped to 55.7 from 61.7 in January, the Mannheim-based ZEW institute said.

While Spiegel covers blowback:

Child Porn Investigation: Merkel Cabinet Rife with Suspicion and Mistrust

It is a disastrous start for Angela Merkel’s new government: After details of a child pornography investigation were leaked, a cabinet member was forced to resign. Now, the chancellor’s new cabinet is consumed by backbiting and mistrust.

Deutsche Welle notes another downside to the German miracle:

Study: Eastern Europeans underpaid in Germany

  • Massive poverty-driven migration from Eastern Europe? Recent studies suggest a different situation: More than half of all immigrants from these countries have good credentials, but work for low wages in Germany.

The Employment Agency’s statistics show that a far larger percentage of Eastern Europeans receive low wages than their German counterparts do. In December 2012, around 52 percent were paid low-wage salaries, meaning they earned less than two-thirds of the country’s average income. The share of such workers among Germans makes up just under 20 percent.

At the same time, the educational level of immigrants keeps rising, says Nina Neubecker from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW): “We found that those who moved to Germany after 2004 are considerably more qualified than immigrants from years in the past.”

Neubecker says her research revealed that two thirds of Eastern European immigrants hold a university degree or have completed a vocational training course. She also found that a significant part of Romanians and Bulgarians who moved to Germany after 2007 carry out jobs not requiring their level of education. Depending on the method used, estimates of the proportion of these overqualified immigrant workers range from 40 to 58 percent.

And a call to chill from Deutsche Welle:

Merkel calls on EU to remain calm after controversial Swiss referendum curbing immigration

German Chancellor Merkel has called on EU states to remain calm after a controversial Swiss referendum which limits the number of immigrants within its borders. The comments followed a meeting with the Swiss president.

Chancellor Merkel warned fellow EU members against “rashly breaking” relations with Bern. “It can’t be that because one side did something in one specific area that the other side says nothing works in other areas,” she said, referring to Brussels’ retaliatory moves.

“The challenge will now be that we deal with the results in a way that relations between the European Union and Switzerland remain as intense as possible with respect for the referendum,” Merkel added.

Merkel and Burkhalter also reaffirmed their commitment toward maintaining German-Swiss ties. The current bilateral trade volume is worth roughly 75 billion euros ($103 billion) and some 350,000 Germans are employed in Switzerland.

On to France and a fear from TheLocal.fr:

French TV execs want protection from Netflix

French TV executives have asked to meet with top leaders to plead for “urgent measures” that would guard them against the pending arrival of video service Netflix and tech giants like Google.

The heads of France’s three largest private television networks have asked the government to protect them from US competitors like Google, Apple and Netflix who are set to enter the market.

The bosses of TF1, Canal+ and M6, alarmed by the impending arrival of the American tech giants, have sought a meeting with Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti to discuss “urgent measures” to reform the sector.

“It is not an economic crisis that is being faced by TF1, Canal+ and M6 but a rapid sectoral change,” Nonce Paolini, Bertrand Meheut and Nicolas de Tavernost said in the letter written last week and seen by AFP on Monday.

And another Roma tragedy from TheLocal.fr:

Blaze ravages another Roma camp in France

Fire raged through a Roma camp in Marseille on Sunday, just days after a blaze in a Paris area Roma camp killed an eight-year-old girl. Following that deadly fire the local mayor said it was time France dismantled its slums.

No one was hurt in the latest fire on Sunday morning, but all 15 makeshift homes near the Marseille port were completely destroyed, said the local fire brigade in a statement.

“Preliminary investigations suggest the fire was started accidentally,” a judicial source told AFP.

Around 45 people who were in the camp will now be housed by authorities in a hotel for the next week, but their future is in doubt since the local government was on the verge of evicting them.

Switzerland next and blowback from TheLocal.ch:

EU freezes research and student exchange funds

In a tit-for-tat retaliation, the European Union has frozen research grants for Swiss universities worth hundreds of millions of euros and suspended the involvement of Switzerland in the Erasmus student exchange programme.

A spokesman for the EU announced the freeze on Sunday, a day after after Bern announced it had refused to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatia, the ATS news agency reported.

The Swiss government said it was unable to ink the deal because of the February 9th referendum decision to scrap the freedom of movement of labour agreement with the EU and impose immigration quotas.

But Brussels considers that Horizon 2020, an €80-billion research and innovation programme spread over seven years (2014-2020), and Erasmus, are tied to the free movement of people accord, ATS said.

More blowback from TheLocal.ch:

Moody’s: Swiss migrant vote ‘credit negative’

Curbs on immigration from the European Union will hurt Switzerland’s economy and its banking sector, ratings agency Moody’s said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

Swiss voters on February 9th supported an initiative to reintroduce quotas on immigrants from the EU in a move that has already led to retaliation from the 28-country bloc.

“Limiting immigration is likely to affect the country’s growth potential, wealth and overall economic strength,” Moody’s said, noting that the effect of the vote was “credit negative”.

The agency noted that Switzerland has benefited over the past decade from the “strong inflow of highly qualified workers”.

And from RT, tucked in for the night:

Swiss jets not scrambled over hijacked plane because ‘airbases closed at night’

An incident with a highjacked Ethiopian passenger jet has exposed the Swiss Air Force’s inability to deal with threats in ‘off-duty’ hours. An emergency escort to the aircraft in distress was carried out by vigilant colleagues from Italy and France.

Early on Monday morning, an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot told ground control he had highjacked flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome and was going to land in Geneva. The Swiss Air Force was caught off guard and missed a rare opportunity to go on a real mission. It turned out that they were unable to scramble any jets because they only work during office hours!

“Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend,” Swiss Air Force spokesman, Laurent Savary, commented to AFP later on, adding that it is “a question of budget and staffing.”

According to Laurent Savary, the Swiss Air Force operates during office hours only, specifically from 8am until a lunch break at noon. A return to cockpits happens at 1:30 pm and they watch over Switzerland’s skies until 5pm.

Spain next, and blowback from anti-immigrant violence of another kind from El País:

Immigration law change in works: interior minister

  • Rajoy defends civil guards’ reaction to tragic Ceuta stampede
  • Brussels denies receiving Spain’s request for border help

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz on Tuesday announced that the Popular Party (PP) government is preparing a change in the immigration law to help civil guards facing mass attempts by migrants to cross the border into the Spanish North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

“The law is not designed for events such as the stampedes in Ceuta and Melilla,” Fernández Díaz said in the halls of the Senate after a tense session. “It is not the same as controlling the border at Barajas or Melilla [airports]. We are working on a reform to control the borders, so that the Civil Guard has adequate regulations to confront these situations.”

Earlier in the upper house he and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vigorously defended the actions of civil guards at the Ceuta security fence on February 6, when 15 sub-Saharan migrants died as a result of a mass attempt to cross the border during which rubber bullets were fired.

TheLocal.es has a deal for you:

Spain rolls out plans to flog off failed bank

Spain will sell its stake in bailed-out bank Bankia in stages over two or three years, its president said in an interview published on Sunday.

Bankia became the symbol of Spain’s financial crisis when it lost more than €19 billion ($26 billion) in 2012 and pushed the government to ask its eurozone partners for €41 billion in rescue loans to shore up the entire banking system.

Under the terms of the European Union’s 2012 bailout, the Spanish government has until 2017 to sell its 68 percent stake in Bankia.

“It would be reasonable for the privatization process to be similar to what is being carried out with Lloyds. That is, that it be carried out in phases and take two or three years,” Bankia president Jose Ignacio Goirigolzarri said in an interview published in daily newspaper ABC.

Europe Online covers another record:

Spain’s public debt at record high

Spain’s public debt has risen to its highest level since records began, data released on Monday showed, with the country posting an unprecedented deficit of 961.6 billion euros (1.3 trillion dollars) at the end of 2013.

The debt level marks an 8.7-per-cent increase on the previous year’s figure, the Bank of Spain revealed on Monday.

It represents around 94 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is slightly higher than the Spanish government’s 2013 target of 94.2 per cent.

El País covers departures:

Chinese burned

  • Some Spanish firms are abandoning China because of the problems of doing business there

“The wave of news stories about the rise in the Chinese market is creating a very distorted image of what it means to do business in this country and the risks involved.” This is the opinion of the director of a big Spanish industrial company with a presence in China. The director spoke on the condition that he was not named. “Currently, although the opposite image is given, very few Spanish companies are making a profit in China, and many are having great problems finding room for themselves in a particularly difficult market,” the director says.

Cases such as those of Revlon and Garnier, which this year decided to pull out of China, have shown that such problems are common to all foreign companies, although the idea persists that Spanish firms are finding it particularly difficult because they “lack the right background and financial resources.”

“Many companies are reaching desperation point. Traditional markets are not working and they’re convinced that anyone can make money in China. But they limit themselves to putting an intern in a business center and hoping for results that obviously will never come,” says the director, who is a leading member of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. “The problem of human resources is a major one: they don’t invest enough in personnel, there is a lack of talent and the turnaround in staff is one of the highest in the world.”

On to Lisbon and a caution from the Portugal News:

‘Crisis not over’ – finance minister

Portugal’s finance minister, Maria Luís Albuquerque, said on Monday in Brussels, that one of the country’s biggest challenges was not to be tempted to give up on budget discipline because it felt the worst part of the crisis was over.

Maria Luís Albuquerque, who was speaking at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting before a Eurogroup meeting, said that “ among the reforms being implemented across Europe, the banking union was clearly the priority for Portugal”, since the current “credit conditions are a very negative factor for the competitiveness of Portuguese companies and the economy as a whole”.

Noting that the structural reforms, one of the topics of the seminar, are also high on the agenda, and there were reasons to be satisfied with the results, but added that there was “still a lot more work ahead”.

Italy next and a change at the top from ANSA:

Renzi handed govt mandate, sets ambitious reform goals

  • Premier-designate eying one major reform every month till May

Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi set ambitious reform targets on Monday after being given a mandate to try to form a government from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Renzi, 39, is set to become Italy’s youngest-ever premier after torpedoing the coalition administration of his PD colleague Enrico Letta last week over his lack of progress with much-needed institutional reforms and measures to revive the troubled economy.

Italy is slowly emerging from its longest postwar recession, but it is still ravaged by unemployment of over 12% with over four in 10 under-25s out of work. Constitutional changes are also needed to streamline government and reduce the cost of the country’s expensive, slow-moving political system.

Les than enthused with TheLocal.it:

Italians think Renzi takeover is ‘pointless’

Matteo Renzi was nominated as Italy’s new prime minister on Monday after a “palace coup” which saw Enrico Letta resign from the leadership. But a new poll has found that few Italians believe it is a positive political move.

Just 31 percent of Italians think replacing Letta with Renzi, who aged just 39 is set to be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister, is positive, an Ipsos poll on Sunday found.

While 23 percent found the move outright wrong, 26 percent said it was “pointless” while 15 percent found the current situation “absurd”.

Still more enthusiasm absent from ANSA:

Fitch keeps outlook negative, ‘Renzi faces same problems’

  • Letta’s resignation highlights ‘volatility of Italian politics’

Ratings agency Fitch said Monday it was keeping a negative outlook for Italy with a BBB+ rating, saying premier-designate Matteo Renzi “will probably have the same problems as his predecessor” in pushing through reforms if he manages to form a new government.

Fitch said the resignation of outgoing Premier Enrico Letta on Friday highlighted the “volatility of Italian politics” pointing out that Renzi was set to be the country’s fourth premier since November 2011.

A plutocratic spat from the London Telegraph:

Tycoons quarrel over Italy’s young jobless

  • Two of Italy’s business heavyweights have gone to war over the country’s soaring levels of youth unemployment
  • Italy’s youth unemployment reached a record 41.6pc in January

Diego Della Valle, head of the Tod’s luxury leather goods empire, launched a blistering attack on John Elkann, the president of the Fiat auto giant, after Mr Elkann said Italy’s young unemployed had no desire to look for work.

Mr Della Valle, the colourful entrepreneur known for his exuberant ties and gold-tinted spectacles, labelled Mr Elkann an “imbecile” after a week of bitter exchanges between the two.

Unhappy other from TheLocal.it:

Desperate business owners march on Rome

An estimated 60,000 Italians protested in central Rome on Tuesday, calling for greater action to save the millions of small- and medium-sized businesses which employ almost half the country’s workforce.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Tuesday; a collective army of business owners demanding the government do more to stem the worrying rise in bankruptcies.

“Without business there is no Italy,” was the slogan of the day, organized by the Italian Enterprise Network (Rete Imprese Italia) along with a number of business associations.

Among a series of demands was an overhaul of the tax system, often described as a barrier to growth with such high rates many Italians simply evade their tax duties.

After the jump, the latest on the endless Greek crises, violence in the Ukraine, Turkish joblessness rising, Turkish economic alarms, Venezuelan turmoil, troubles in Brazil, Argentinian woes, Latin legalization moves, Australian economic woes and a Murdochian bonanza, Indian populism and woes, Thai turmoil, a mixed report from China, Abenonics in extremsis in Japan, nuclear woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now! . . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: MegaloEconoPoliFuku


A verrryyyy long collection, with the latest global economic, political, and environmental news for your perusal.

First up, playing monopoly with Sky News:

Comcast To Buy Time Warner Cable For $45bn

The deal would create an entertainment superpower with 32 million TV subscribers, but there are calls for regulators to step in.

The two biggest US cable companies are joining forces in a $45bn (£27bn) deal, creating an entertainment giant with some 32 million TV subscribers.

Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable was confirmed at the start of trading on Thursday.

Its offer, which is subject to regulatory approval, is about 17% higher than the company’s closing share price on Wednesday.

The takeover bid trumps an earlier $38bn (£23bn) offer from Charter Communications, which appeared to concede defeat by announcing: “We’ve always maintained our greatest opportunity to create value for shareholders is by executing our current business plan.”

More from Business Insider:

What’s in it for Comcast Cable shareholders?

“This combination creates a company that delivers maximum value for our shareholders,” said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

How are they going to do that?

The company explains in one sentence that probably has every Comcast and Time Warner Cable employee nervous.

“The transaction will generate approximately $1.5 billion in operating efficiencies and will be accretive to Comcast’s free cash flow per share while preserving balance sheet strength.”

“Operating efficiencies” usually means the closing and combining offices, which also often comes with job cuts.

Still more from The Guardian:

Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable ‘will throttle choice on the web’

  • Angry consumer groups say proposed $45.2bn mega-deal will drive up costs for millions – and call on FCC to block takeover

Consumer groups reacted angrily to the merger of cable giant Comcast and Time Warner Cable on Thursday, claiming the combination could “throttle” choice on the internet.

Comcast’s proposed $45.2bn takeover of TWC will create a media behemoth that will dominate broadband internet access across the US. Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, will also cement its position as the pre-eminent force in cable TV.

Jodie Griffin, senior staff attorney at consumer rights group Public Knowledge said: “This is a deal that needs to be blocked.” She said Comcast was likely to use the extra leverage to “drive up costs and reduce choices for consumers.”, and claimed the new company would be too powerful, becoming a “gatekeeper” capable of “throttling competition.”

And from In These Times, a symbolic action taken years too late:

It’s Official: Obama Signs Minimum Wage Hike for Some Federal Contract Workers

Today, President Barack Obama honored his promise from last month’s State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for some workers indirectly employed by the federal government. In a new executive order, he raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, effective Jan. 1, 2015. The White House estimates the order will affect hundreds of thousands of workers employed by private companies with government contracts.

“Nobody who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Obama said during a signing ceremony at the White House. He used the ceremony to repeat his calls for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers and for state and local governments and private businesses to also act to boost the income of low-wage workers.

Labor groups and union supporters reported they were pleased with the final shape of the executive order.

From The Hill, reversing idiocy:

Senate reverses pension cut

The Senate on Wednesday sent legislation to President Obama’s desk that would repeal the controversial $6 billion cut to military pensions.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure in a 95-3 vote, undoing the spending cut that Congress had approved two months prior in the December budget deal.

The only senators to vote against the bill were Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The legislation passed in the House just a day earlier in a 326-90 vote.

From MintPress News, necessary action:

Justice Department Sued Over Secretive JPMorgan Settlement

The agreement settled both “actual and potential” civil claims against the company brought by five federal agencies and several state attorneys general, thus offering broad immunity for years.

A public interest group is suing the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder over the agency’s recent record-busting settlement with JPMorgan Chase for the bank’s fraudulent conduct leading up to the 2007-08 bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent meltdown of the financial industry.

Better Markets, a watchdog group based here, alleges that the Justice Department broke both federal law and constitutional mandate when it agreed to and finalized the $13 billion settlement in November. The agreement process, reportedly decided upon personally by Holder and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, included no judicial oversight, despite what critics say are multiple statutory obligations to do so.

“There are certain statutes regarding certain violations of law that expressly state that the Department of Justice must seek court approval, and then there are others where it’s silent,” Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, told MintPress while announcing the lawsuit on Monday.

CNBC frets:

Wealthy more worried about being seen as wealthy

  • Is success being vilified in America? The successful seem to think so.

A new poll from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group finds that 1 percenters no longer like to be seen as such.

One-third of members of the group said they “like it when others recognize me as wealthy.” Though that number (taken in the fourth quarter of 2013) may sound high, it’s down from 40 percent a year earlier. And it’s far below the 53 percent who agreed with the statement in 2010.

Fully 28 percent say they worry about “being scorned for being in the top part of the economy,” versus 24 percent who were concerned about that in the first quarter of 2013.

From USA TODAY, that old hard times intolerance [the first of several in today’s compendium]:

Immigration debate is reignited in Fremont, Neb.

Voters in Fremont, Neb., are still trying to curb illegal immigration.

Residents voted 60%-40% on Tuesday to re-approve an ordinance that requires property owners not to rent houses or apartments to illegal immigrants and requires renters to declare their legal residency. Landlords who violate the ordinance face fines.

Fremont has a complicated history with the ordinance, which thrust this city of 26,000 people near Omaha into the national spotlight in 2010, when residents first approved the law after the City Council defeated the proposal. The law also requires employers to verify the legal status of employees; that part of the law is in effect.

After voters approved the measure, the City Council put the law on hold when the Nebraska ACLU and other groups sued. Lower courts upheld the law, and the council sent the housing portion back for another vote of the people.

Al Jazeera America protests:

Portland, Ore., residents tell mayor: ‘Stop arresting homeless people’

Residents of Portland, Ore., gathered in front of City Hall on Tuesday to protest the government’s treatment of its homeless population. The group, a self-described “angry mob,” carried pitchforks and torches while demanding that Mayor Charlie Hales end policies that criminalize homelessness.

The city government has come under fire in recent months for enforcing an ordinance that prohibits camping on public property, which critics say unfairly targets the homeless.

A 2013 city count found nearly 1,900 individuals in the Portland metropolitan area to be homeless and unsheltered, a 10 percent increase from 2011.

From PandoDaily, paying the piper:

The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS’s news division

On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on  major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).

United Press International sues:

Magazines sue Colorado over marijuana advertising restrictions

Two publications are challenging Colorado’s recreational marijuana rules about advertising, with a lawsuit filed in federal court, records said.

The national magazine High Times and the local weekly magazine Westword sued the state of Colorado Monday because of rules stating recreational marijuana stores can advertise only in publications aimed at a readership over the age of 21, the Denver Post reported Wednesday.

The lawsuit argues the rules, which also apply to outdoor and broadcast advertising, are restrictions of free speech, and notes there are no similar restrictions on medical marijuana businesses.

It marks the first time the state’s advertising rules have been challenged in court.

From MintPress News, a stunning development:

HIV/AIDS Cure May Be Found In Marijuana: Study

For years, many Americans with HIV/AIDS have used medical marijuana to relieve some common symptoms associated with the illness such as nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.

Now, a new study published last week in the journal AIDS Researcher and Human Retroviruses found that a daily dosage of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, may actually fight the HIV/AIDS virus itself.

In this most recent study, the team of researchers from Louisiana State University found that when HIV-infected monkeys were given THC daily during a 17-month time period, the monkeys had less damage in the immune tissue of their gut — an important site of HIV infection — than those given a placebo.

Researchers also reported that they found consuming THC had improved the monkeys immune tissue at a gene level as well, and was in a way, preventing the disease from killing healthy immune cells — a discovery other studies have found as well.

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau, blowing smoke:

Marijuana gets a show of support on Capitol Hill

  • Eighteen House members ask Obama to reclassify the banned drug

In the biggest show of support yet for legalizing marijuana on Capitol Hill, 18 House members today asked President Barack Obama to reclassify the drug, removing it from a list of banned substances deemed to have no medical value.

The letter, distributed by Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, argued that including marijuana in the Schedule 1 list of banned drugs, along with heroin and LSD, disregards the laws of 20 states that allow pot to be used for medical purposes.

It comes after Obama last month said that he doesn’t believe that marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol.

MintPress News cashes out:

Banking Regulations For Marijuana Industry “Imminent”

“Without access to basic banking services, many legitimate cannabis businesses are forced to manage sales, payroll, and even tax bills entirely in cash.”

On Tuesday U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, Wash., said the federal government’s new guidance for banks and bank regulators will be released “imminently.”

What Heck is referring to is Attorney General Eric Holder’s pledge that the Justice Department and the Treasury Department would issue guidance “very soon” to banks on how they can work with marijuana businesses.

Though the guidance had not been issued by the time of this article’s publication, Heck, a member of House Committee on Financial Services, who along with Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Colorado has pressed for marijuana banking reform, said legal marijuana businesses will be provided with a “full range of banking service, including accepting credit cards, direct depositing payroll checks and more,” under the guidance.

In other words, marijuana-related businesses will no longer be forced to operate on a cash-only basis.

On to latest in the global neoliberal trade agreement games from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. to Hold Working-Level TPP Talks Next Week

Working-level officials of Japan and the United States will meet in Japan next week to discuss sticky issues in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks ahead of key four-day TPP ministerial talks in Singapore from Feb. 22, Japanese government sources said Wednesday.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler will arrive in Japan on Monday and hold talks with Hiroshi Oe, Japan’s deputy chief representative in the TPP negotiations, and other officials, according to the sources.

The two sides are expected to discuss the handling of tariffs on farm products and issues related to automobile trade, the sources said.

Another deal, with problems, via Deutsche Welle:

Tripping over TTIP: Obstacles overshadow EU-US trade pact

  • With talks on the EU-US transatlantic free trade deal set to continue next month, this week’s outrage over a European Parliament vote on genetically modified corn will hardly be the last obstacle negotiators face.

This coming Monday (17.02.2014), EU trade chief Karel de Gucht and his US counterpart Michael Froman are scheduled to meet in Washington to discuss the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a transatlantic free trade area. They are expected to make a political assessment of the past three rounds of US-EU trade talks and to discuss the upcoming fourth round of negotiations in March.

The pact would unify standards and licensing procedures across a EU-US trade zone and would waive tariffs on goods traded between the EU and the US. According to the Munich-based IFO institute, the treaty will create up to 400,000 new jobs in Europe – 110,000 of them in Germany alone. A done deal, it would seem.

But the deal is far from done: the EU and the US differ over a wide variety of issues, one of which is genetically modified food. On Tuesday (11.02.2014), a new type of genetically modified corn from the US was approved by the European Parliament amid great controversy. The decision paves the way for compromise over one of the differences in EU-US consumer attitudes that has been a stumbling stone in TTIP negotiations.

But opponents of the trade pact are becoming more vocal, and more debates over standards, consumer protection, cultural protectionism threaten to erupt when EU-US negotiators get down to the deal’s fine print and put the agreement up for domestic scrutiny.

From Canada, riches spurned from South China Morning Post:

Canada scraps millionaire visa scheme, ‘dumps 46,000 Chinese applications’

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue will have their applications scrapped and their application fees returned

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires face an uncertain future after Canada’s government moved to scrap its controversial investor visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986.

The surprise announcement was made in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, delivered to parliament in Ottawa on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue for visas will have their applications “eliminated” and their fees returned.

The announcement came less than a week after the South China Morning Post revealed how the scheme was overwhelmed by an influx of applications from mainland millionaires at Canada’s Hong Kong consulate. Applications to the scheme were frozen in 2012 as a result, as immigration staff struggled to clear the backlog.

ANSAmed covers a ploy:

EU and southern Europe in re-industrialization pact

  • Italy, Spain, Portugal heads of State meet at COTEC in Lisbon

An EU Industrial Compact adopted in January has led to a ‘pact’ between the European Commission and southern European countries to speed up the re-industrialization of Europe by exploiting the first signs of economic recovery, European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani made known in a joint statement with ministers from Italy, Spain and Portugal on Wednesday in Lisbon.

The statement was issued on the sidelines of the annual COTEC conference, which was attended by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Spanish King Juan Carlos, and Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

The aim of the Industrial Compact is for the manufacturing sector to make up 20% of EU GDP, and this can be achieved by speeding up innovation and marketing, COTEC experts from Italy, Spain and Portugal said.

And from MintPress News, more of that old hard times intolerance:

The Rebirth Of European Racism

The mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders.

Bulgaria has recently seen a surge in xenophobic attacks since a wave of Syrian refugees escaping the horrors of the war started arriving. But it appears what these refugees have found in Bulgaria isn’t much better than what they left behind.

Last year, roughly 11,600 migrants and asylum seekers crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey, most of them Syrian. Human rights organizations expect tens of thousands to make the journey across the Turkish border in the coming months.

But the mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders. Last November, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honor Skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which says it wants to “cleanse Bulgaria from the foreign and alien immigrant scum that have been flooding the towns of Bulgaria.”

The party has organized so-called “civil patrols,” which stop and check foreigners—and a portion of the general population thinks that this is a good idea.

And an admission from The Guardian:

Migration in the EU ‘has caused strains,’ admits José Manuel Barroso

  • President of the European Commission says free movement is open to abuse but that he will not compromise on citizens’ rights

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, will on Friday acknowledge that the free movement of people across the EU has put “unintended strains” on public services and is open to abuse.

In a move to show that Brussels understands the concerns raised in Britain, Barroso will say in London that the commission has recently clarified anti-abuse rules to crack down on sham marriages which allow non-EU citizens to claim benefits as a family member.

But the commission president will make clear in a speech to the London School of Economics that he will not compromise on the right of all EU citizens to move across all 28 member states – one of the four founding pillars which guarantees the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.

Reuters ponders:

ECB still assessing if lower inflation temporary: Coene

The European Central Bank is awaiting further information, particularly signs on whether the current easing of euro zone inflation is temporary, before it acts, Governing Council member Luc Coene said.

Annual inflation in the 18-member euro zone slowed to 0.7 percent in January from 0.8 percent in December, confounding expectations of a rise and matching a four-year low hit last October.

The ECB left interest rates at record low last week, but put markets on alert for a possible move in March, when the Governing Council should have new forecasts from the bank’s staff extending into 2016.

On to Britain and an ongoing disaster from the London Telegraph:

Flood-hit areas are a ‘battlefield’ as thousands of soldiers are deployed

  • Army chief says that commanding officers are applying ‘battle-group’ skills an ‘unparalleled natural crisis’

Britain is in the grip of an “unparalleled natural crisis”, the Army officer in charge of the flood recovery effort declared on Wednesday.

As hurricane-force winds gusting at more than 100mph lashed the country, forecasters warned that the weather will get worse this weekend as a month’s worth of rain falls in just 48 hours.

The chaos now threatens to derail Britain’s economic recovery, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England warned. His comments came as storms that have battered the South West and Wales for weeks spread to the north of England for the first time this winter, bringing parts of the country to a standstill.

A bankster alert from the London Telegraph:

RBS warned of credit rating ‘downgrade’

  • Royal Bank of Scotland has been told its credit could be downgraded by ratings agency Moody’s

Royal Bank of Scotland has been warned by one of the world’s main ratings agencies that its credit is at risk of being downgraded following the surprise revelation last month of weaker than expected capital levels.

Moody’s said it had put RBS’s debt “on review for downgrade” pointing to the taxpayer-backed lender’s “weaker than previously anticipated regulatory capital position”.

The move comes after RBS’s unscheduled announcement on January 27 of £3.1bn of extra provisions for issues ranging from its sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance and interest rate hedging products.

More immigration tension, this time from Iceland and the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Newspaper Editor Defends Leaked Memo

Davíð Oddsson – the current co-editor of Morgunblaðið – defended the leak of a memo on an asylum seeker that launched a police investigation as “allowing the public to get the whole picture”.

In an editorial for Morgunblaðið, Davíð – who is also, amongst other things, the former chairperson of the Independence Party, from which Ministry of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir hails – argued in favour of government offices publishing personal information about refugees as a means to take part in the public discussion about asylum seekers.

“Is it not right that the public get the whole picture?,” Davíð wrote. “That nothing is hidden about what’s at stake?”

As reported, the police are currently investigating the Ministry of the Interior over a leaked memo which impugned the reputations of Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. It later came to light that the accusations in the memo were false. Whilst the ministry denies the memo came from their offices, all evidence indicates the ministry as the only source.

On to Norway with EUbusiness and a hard times intolerance rebuke:

Norway rules out referendum on immigration

Norwegian Justice Minister Anders Anundsen on Wednesday ruled out holding a referendum on immigration, rejecting a request by a fellow member of his populist party to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland.

“For many years, the (populist) Progress Party has claimed that more influence should be granted to the citizens. This proposition shouldn’t shock anybody,” Anundsen, a Progress Party minister was quoted by Norwegian news agency NTB during parliamentary question time.

“But within the government coalition, the Progress Party is sticking to our cooperation agreement (with the other right and centre-right parties) and does not plan a referendum on this matter.”

A Finnish proclamation from New Europe:

Finland: OECD wants more structural reforms

Most people would not associate Finland with past high-tech successes like Nokia and Ericksson with structural reforms that have come to be associated with the EU’s troubled south. But the latest report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) urged Helsinki to make more efforts in the structural reform to stimulate the economy, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE reported on Wednesday.

OECD called for more measures in restructuring municipalities, raising retirement age and stricter mortgage rules, in order to promote the economic growth and deal with the aging population in Finland.

The report pointed out that the rising cost of pensions and healthcare for an aging population is one economic to Finland, suggesting higher retirement age and an end to part-time retirement.

On to the Netherlands and significant decision from DutchNews.nl:

The Netherlands to vote against approving the EU’s 2012 accounts

The Netherlands will join Britain and Sweden in voting against giving approval to the EU’s accounts for 2012 because of an increase in mis-spending, finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Thursday.

Dijsselbloem told MPs there are still too many uncertainties about the accounts and the error rate in the EU’s books has risen from 3.9% in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012. This is equivalent to €6.7bn being wrongly spent.

The problems centre on funds allocated to reducing the prosperity gap between different members states and money earmarked for rural development. In some cases, projects were not put out to tender properly or they were ineligible for grants under Brussels’ rules.

‘We cannot simply let this happen,’ Dijsselbloem, who also chairs the influential Euro Group, is quoted as saying by news agency ANP.

Germany next and higher hopes from Deutsche Welle:

German government revises growth forecast slightly upwards

The German government has confirmed the Economic Ministry’s 2014 growth outlook, saying that GDP will expand slightly more this year than previously predicted. It said the labor market would benefit as well.

German cabinet ministers on Wednesday adopted the 2014 Annual Economic Report, which included slightly higher expectations for growth in the course of this year.

The government said it expected the national economy to expand by 1.8 percent in 2014, marginally up from an earlier prediction of 1.7 percent. The report said the growth rate would increase to 2 percent next year.

Commenting on the report, conservative lawmakers in Berlin said everything should be done to avoid jeopardizing the growing economic momentum amid problems caused by the country’s energy transition and the aftermath of the protracted eurozone debt crisis.

And from Deutsche Welle, another chorus of that old. . .:

DW exclusive: Germans would vote just like the Swiss on curbing immigration

  • A survey commissioned by Deutsche Welle has found the majority of German citizens would vote for limiting immigration. The survey follows a decision in Switzerland to limit its annual immigration from the EU.

If Germans were to vote in a referendum on limiting immigration to Germany nearly half would support the measure (48 percent ) while almost as many (46 percent) would oppose it, according to a DW commissioned survey.

On behalf of DW, opinion research institute infratest dimap surveyed 1,001 Germans over the age of 18 on February 11-12, 2014. Three percent of those surveyed were undecided.

The survey showed that a particularly high number of Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party members (84 percent) would support an immigration limit. Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its sister party the Christian Social Union voted 51 percent for a limit.

Paris next, and plutocratic woes from France 24:

French billionaire senator Dassault loses immunity over graft claims

The French Senate stripped billionaire industrialist senator Serge Dassault of parliamentary immunity on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to face possible criminal charges for allegedly buying votes.

The decision by a Senate committee means that UMP senator Dassault, 88, can be taken into custody for interrogation by judges investigating allegations dating from his 14 years as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a Paris suburb.

The judges suspect Dassault of operating an extensive system of vote-buying that influenced the outcome of three mayoral elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or by his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter, the current mayor of Corbeil.

Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France’s 4th richest man and the 69th richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of 13 billion euros. He heads Dassault Group, which owns France’s prestigious conservative newspaper “Le Figaro” and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation, which makes business and military aircraft including the Rafale fighter jet.

Europe Online rakes it in:

Societe Generale nearly triples profits in 2013

France’s second-biggest bank Societe Generale nearly tripled its profits in 2013, helped by higher earnings in both its retail and corporate and investment banking units, the group said Wednesday.

Net income shot up to 2.2 billion euros (3 billion dollars), from 774 million euros in 2012. Group revenues were up 4.3 per cent to 22.8 billion euros.

Societe Generale ended the year on a high note, with fourth-quarter profits of 322 million euros far exceeding analysts’ expectations.

TheLocal.fr parks it:

French taxi drivers call for ‘indefinite strike’

The announcement will not go down well with Parisians or tourists but angry taxi drivers in France are clearly not willing to lie down without a fight. On Tuesday they called for an “indefinite strike”, saying they will take action “anytime, anywhere”.

Paris taxi drivers continued to vent their anger on Tuesday when they brought traffic to a standstill in the centre of the French capital leading to the arrest of dozens of drivers. The trouble comes as unions called for ongoing industrial action.

On Tuesday evening as cabbies fronted up to police at Place de La Concorde union leaders called for an indefinite strike, which could see wildcat blockades and go slows continue for the foreseeable future.

In a joint statement drivers’ unions said they “reserved the right to take action at any place at any time.”

Switzerland, and that old familiar tune from TheLocal.ch:

Populists urge more immigration controls

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which spearheaded the initiative narrowly accepted by Swiss voters to limit immigration from the European Union, is set on Friday to push for for more measures to tighten immigration as tensions mount in Switzerland over the issue.

The initiative against massive immigration, backed by 50.3 percent of the electorate, calls for an end to the freedom of movement agreement between Switzerland and the EU and the imposition of quotas.

But the deal is fuzzy on details. It does not, for example, stipulate how many foreigners would be accepted into the country and through what criteria the level of needed workers would be selected for different sectors of the economy.

The SVP is being prodded to clarify how it expects the quota system to work.

Spain next, and an affirmative declaration from thinkSPAIN:

Economy starts to grow as GDP predictions more optimistic

SPAIN’S Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will increase by 0.9 per cent this year and 1.9 per cent next year – signs that the economy is growing once again, according to figures released by the BBVA bank.

This will be enough for creation of ‘sustainable’ employment to begin, says the entity, but it warns that jobless figures are unlikely to drop below 25.6 per cent this year and 24.8 per cent in 2015.

Consumer spending in Spain is expected to rise in 2014 by 0.9 per cent and by 1.3 per cent next year, with lack of national demand gradually ceasing to pose barriers to micro-economic growth over the next two years and ongoing efforts in increasing exports will set the scene for the economy to begin its recovery, the BBVA reveals.

ANSAmed has a harsher take:

Spain: fewer jobs, lower wages two years after reform

  • Trade unions and ILO slam reform, OECD praises it

Two years to the day from Spain’s last labor reform, there are fewer jobs, more long-term unemployed, and fewer people paying into social security.

A negative balance according to trade unions and a ‘’not very encouraging’‘ picture according to the Savings Banks Foundation (Funcas), but the government says the reform is beginning to have positive effects within the context of a recovering economy.

Jobless benefit claims totaled 4,599,829 people as of January 2012, one month before the labor reform was enacted. Two years later, that number is at 4,814,435, up by 241,606 people or +4.6% as of January 2014. In the same period, the number of workers paying into the social security fund dropped by 769,627 people, or -4.5%, to a total of 16,176,610 people. A quarterly report by national statistics bureau INE showed 5,273,600 were unemployed when the reform was enacted in the fourth quarter of 2011, a number that rose to 5,896,300 in the same period of 2013, equal to 622,700 more unemployed people (+11.8%) in two years.

ANSAmed again, and a comedown for high-flyers:

Spain: Iberia; agreement with pilots, salaries down 14%

  • The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015

Spanish carrier Iberia and pilots’ union Sepla have reached an agreement in principle ending years of conflict which provides for salary cuts by at least 14%.

The agreement also introduces ‘’permanent structural changes’‘ at the company to cut costs and allow the development of the airline and its low-cost company Iberia Express, Iberia’s Iag group said in a statement to the market authority committee on Thursday.

The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015, previously rejected by pilots, and from that date onwards salary increases depending on the company’s results.

From El País, the bankster blues:

Failed lender CAM wants prison for two of its former executives

  • Bank’s lawyer seeks six to 10 years for ex-director general and oversight committee chief
  • Attorney accuses them of inflating expense accounts and favoring own interests

The lawyer of failed lender Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo (CAM), appointed by the government’s bank bailout fund, the FROB, wants prison terms for two of the bank’s former top executives.

Former director general Roberto López Abad and former chairman of the Valencian savings bank’s oversight committee, Juan Ramón Avilés, face the prospect of between six and 10 years in prison for misappropriation of funds and deliberate mismanagement.

The state prosecutor is seeking shorter jail terms for the two men.

And the social counterrevolution prevails, via TheLocal.es:

‘New abortion law to stay’: Spanish lawmakers

A controversial plan to ban women in Spain from freely opting for abortions overcame a key hurdle on Tuesday when lawmakers voted in secret against a motion to scrap the reform.

The plan has outraged pro-choice groups and brought thousands of people out onto the streets to protest, but has sparked division even within the conservative ruling party.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal submitted by the opposition Socialists to “immediately withdraw” the bill by 183 votes to 151. Six lawmakers abstained.

The ruling Popular Party (PP) holds a strong majority in parliament, but the abortion reform, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, has been delayed amid dissent by senior party figures.

And another sign of the times from El País:

House sales fall for third year in a row

  • Property purchases hit record low in December

The Spanish housing market remained locked in a trough in 2013, six years after a massive property bubble burst.

According to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INE), the number of homes sold last year, excluding public housing schemes, fell 1.2 percent from a year earlier to 276,600 after falling 11.3 percent in 2012 and 18.2 percent in 2011. During the height of the boom over 800,000 houses were exchanged in a year. In December alone sales fell 11.0 from a year earlier to a new monthly record low of 18,619.

The only respite the market has had since boom turned to bust was in 2010 when sales increased 4.8 percent, driven by the purchase of new homes before the introduction of a hike in value-added tax.

And from TheLocal.es, an unconscionable demand:

Cancer drug maker wants 4000% Spanish price hike

Drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare has reportedly threatened to stop selling its leukaemia and ovarian cancer treatments in Spain if Health Minister Ana Mato refuses to raise fixed purchase prices by up to 4,000 percent.

According to online daily El Confidencial Digital, the habitual bargaining between Aspen and the Ministry of Health has taken a turn for the worse.

The South African manufacturer of generic medicines is currently undergoing a rapid expansion in international markets.

The company is allegedly insisting on massive price increases for a number of drugs but the Ministry has flatly refused.

On to Lisbon with EUbusiness:

Portugal passes new IMF rescue program review

The International Monetary Fund approved Wednesday the disbursement of 910 million euros ($1.24 billion) to Portugal after the country passed the 10th review of its bailout program.

The disbursement took the country a step closer to the May 2014 end of the European Union-IMF rescue program, with the country’s finances stabilizing.

But the IMF urged the Portuguese government not to give in to pressure to increase public spending and to keep pushing ahead on structural reforms to its finances.

“The Portuguese authorities’ implementation of their Fund-supported program has been commendable,” said IMF Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik in a statement.

And on to Italy with the New York Times:

Italy’s Prime Minister Announces Resignation Amid Party Revolt

Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy, whose weak coalition government has come under increasing criticism, announced his resignation on Thursday night after his own Democratic Party staged a dramatic insurrection and voted to replace him with the party’s new leader, Matteo Renzi.

The Democratic Party is the largest member of Italy’s coalition government, and the party’s decision to dump Mr. Letta will likely have to be put to a confidence vote in Parliament. Mr. Letta will meet with his cabinet on Friday morning and then present his resignation letter to Italy’s president, making way for Mr. Renzi, 38, to become Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr. Renzi, the mayor of Florence who recently won a nationwide primary to become leader of the Democratic Party, has a reputation for boldness and has long been considered Italy’s most promising young politician. He has spoken repeatedly about the need for sweeping political and economic changes. But few analysts foresaw that he would lead a revolt against his party’s sitting prime minister.

AGI has a skeptical take from the populist right:

M5S co-founder doubtful government will last until 2018

M5S co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio says he is doubtful the government can last until 2018: “I see a high instability situation. A 2018 forecast is very risky”.

The statement was made at the Termini train station, while Casaleggio was waiting for a train to Milan. Asked by journalists about the likelihood of a government lead by Matteo Renzi to survive until 2018, Casaleggio added: “One can never tell, but the beginning of this year seems to be marked by a great political instability”.

From TheLocal.it, austerian rigor:

Italians drop holiday plans as crisis bites

The number of trips taken by Italians since the economic crisis began in 2008 has plummeted by 48.6 percent, new statistics show.

Last year Italy’s resident population took just over 63 million trips with overnight stays, whether for work or holiday, the country’s statistics agency Istat said this week.

With a population of nearly 60 million one trip per person may seem like a fair ratio, but a broader look shows that Italians have nearly halved travel in recent years.

They took 48.6 percent fewer holidays or work trips last year than five years’ previously, continuing a year-on-year decline.

EUbusiness divides:

Catalonia, Scotland, Venice? Italian party eyes autonomy

The head of Italy’s Northern League on Wednesday said he supported the autonomy bids of Catalonia from Spain and Scotland from Britain, and hoped that the Venice region “will be next on the list”.

Matteo Salvini said two other regions of northern Italy — Lombardy and Piedmont — could also follow suit, adding that it was time to reduce the powers of the European Union and return to “national and regional sovereignty”.

Salvini also said that plans for a coalition of far-right parties including his own at the European Parliament after elections in May were “well advanced”.

The coalition “will not be Eurosceptic but will be in favour of a different Europe,” he said, adding however that he continues to support an abandonment of the euro. “The euro has massacred our economy,” he said.

TheLocal.it inhales:

Italy relaxes cannabis penalties

Italy’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday struck down an anti-drug law from 2006 that imposed tough sentencing for the sale and possession of cannabis, putting it on the same level as heroin and cocaine.

The court declared “illegitimate” the law, which imposed sentences of six to 20 years for trafficking in cannabis, whereas the previous law which is now back in force included sentences of between two and six years.

Leftist lawmakers and civil society representatives immediately hailed the court ruling, saying it would help ease overcrowding in Italian prisons.

The scrapping of the law could affect 10,000 detainees who are in pre-trial detention or serving time and could see a revision of their sentences and their release.

After the jump, deeper misery in Greece, Blackwater creator’s African dreams, Venezuelan violence, Argentine inflation, Indian populist payoffs, parliamentary riots, and bankster woes, Thai turmoil prolonged, Aussie bubble alarms, Chinese marketeering and GMOs, Japanese desperate measures, environmental woes, and a jam-packed Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroEcoFukunomia


From the worlds of politics, economics, and environmental news, today’s collection begins with a propitiatory sacrifice from Jiji Press:

Obama Urged Not to Sign TPP Unless Japan Bans Dolphin Hunting

A group of celebrities and activists in the United States are urging President Barack Obama to refuse to sign a proposed international trade deal unless Japan bans dolphin hunting.

In a letter dated Wednesday, hip-hop producer Russell Simmons asked U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy to urge Obama not to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact unless Japan bans the hunt.

Simmons’ effort draws support from about 40 celebrities and activists including film director Oliver Stone and actress Cameron Diaz.

Bloomberg limits the bubble:

Home Prices Rose in Fewer U.S. Markets in Fourth Quarter

Prices for single-family homes rose in 73 percent of U.S. cities in the fourth quarter, fewer than in the previous three months, as surging values in the past two years started to reduce affordability.

The median transaction price for an existing home climbed from a year earlier in 119 of 164 metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said in a report today. In the third quarter, 88 percent of markets had increases.

While tight inventories and improving employment are bolstering the housing recovery, home-price gains are poised to decelerate as an increase in mortgage rates from record lows cuts into affordability. Values have been rising faster than incomes, particularly in the West, the Realtors group said.

Businessweek takes a flier:

Yes, There’s a Pilot Shortage: Salaries Start at $21,000

The regional side of the U.S. airline industry has long been a fiercely competitive arena in which the big airlines auction large sections of their flight schedules to the lowest bidder. That’s put pressure on wages: The starting salary for a first officer at a regional airline is a little more than $21,000 per year—about $40,000 lower than the same job at Delta (DAL) and United (UAL), according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilot union.

And the stingy pay, in turn, exacerbates the pilot shortage. Not only does it make pilot jobs less appealing, but the small salaries also combine with the more onerous federal training rules to put many new pilots deep in debt. Paying for the necessary hours of training flights before getting a first job can cost more than $100,000.

“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay, and benefits,” ALPA President Lee Moak said last week in a statement that aimed to refute the “myth” of such a shortage. The union says that Emirates Airlines pays new first officers $82,000, “plus a housing allowance and other extraordinary benefits,” and that thousands of U.S. pilots on furlough and working abroad are “eager to return to U.S. airline cockpits—under the right conditions.”

From In These Times, Tea Party pols:

When the Boss Wants a Union, But the GOP Says ‘No’

Volkswagen is willing to let employees at its Tennessee plant unionize, but Republicans are stiff in their opposition.

Republicans are blasting VW (actually criticizing a corporation!) because VW is cooperating with an attempt by the United Auto Workers to organize the German automaker’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant. The workers at VW’s German assembly plants are organized and paid twice the wage of the Chattanooga workers.

VW wants to establish works councils at its Chattanooga plant, just like those it has in Germany. In Europe, these groups of white- and blue-collar workers collaborate on issues such as plant rules, work hours and vacations. In VW’s experience, cooperating with employees through these councils increases productivity and profitability.

Because the councils discuss labor issues such as work hours, VW and the UAW have determined that to legally establish them in Chattanooga, the plant must be unionized.

This is intolerable to the GOP. Two of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, insist they know how to run an auto company better than VW. Despite this successful international auto company’s actual business experience with work councils, these GOP politicians say that they know what’s best, that they just know unionization won’t be good for VW.

Al Jazeera America prolongs:

California gets two more years to ease prison overcrowding

  • Judges’ ruling sets compliance officer who will release inmates early if state fails to ease problem

Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.

In doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.

The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer. Judges had previously extended the deadline in December.

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.

The Hill anchors the baby:

Chinese ‘birth tourism’ booming in US territory

A growing number of pregnant Chinese women are having their babies in the U.S. territory of Saipan, automatically giving the children American citizenship, according to the region’s congressman.

Del. Gregorio Sablan (D) represents Saipan and the rest of the Northern Mariana Islands in Congress. The U.S. territory is in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 3,700 miles west of Honolulu and a four-hour flight from China.

Sablan said in an ABC News report that he has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to look into the “birth tourism” situation. “We want to fix this and we want to make sure that this small problem remains very small,” Sablan said.

Heading north of the border for another “free trade” travesty from EurActiv:

EU-Canada free trade deal ‘opens door to environmental lawsuits’

Multinationals will have wide-ranging powers to sue EU states that enact health or environmental laws breaching their “legitimate expectations” of profit, according to a leaked ‘investment chapter’ from the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), which was signed last November.

A separate ‘nature and scope’ document for EU-US free trade talks, which EurActiv has seen, makes clear that similar parameters are foreseen for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.

The CETA investment chapter proposes a definition of ‘fair and equitable treatment’ (FET) for investors which has sparked multi-million dollar lawsuits, such as one by Lone Pine challenging a shale drilling ban by the Canadian state of Quebec.

EU officials have reportedly not challenged the authenticity of the leaked document, which was published online by the Trade Justice Network, although they were unavailable for comment on the issue.

Pronouncement from a high place via Xinhua:

OECD index shows growth recovery in major economies

The latest composite leading indicators (CLIs) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are pointing to an improving economic outlook in major advanced economies, said the Paris-based think tank on Monday.

The CLIs, designed to anticipate turning points in economic activity relative to trend, stood at 100.9 for the OECD area, up by 0.1 percentage compared to last month, while the oulook of seven major economies pointed to a firming growth.

In the euro area, the indicators projected the single-currency bloc to witness positive change in momentum and reached a ratio of 101.1 at the end of 2013 compared to November’s 100.9.

As for France and Germany, Europe’s main powerhouses, the OECD report expected economic activities to gain ground. Their ratios were above the long term average rate of 100, with respectively a ratio of 100.5 and 100.8 for December after 100.3 and 100.7 reported a month earlier.

But The Guardian adds a qualification:

OECD admits overstating growth forecasts amid eurozone crisis and global crash

Biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said

A failure to spot the severity of the eurozone crisis and the impact of the meltdown of the global banking system led to consistent forecasting errors in recent years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development admitted on Tuesday.

The Paris-based organisation said it repeatedly overestimated growth prospects for countries around the world between 2007 and 2012. The OECD revised down forecasts at the onset of the financial crisis, but by an insufficient degree, it said.

“Forecasts were revised down consistently and very rapidly when the financial crisis erupted, but growth out-turns nonetheless still proved substantially weaker than had been projected,” it said in a paper exploring its forecasting record in recent years.

The biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year.

On to Europe with an alarm from the London Telegraph:

ECB paralysed by German court decision as deflation threatens

  • The ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis

Last week’s ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis and may ultimately force Germany to withdraw from the euro, the country’s most influential magazine has warned.

A sweeping report by Der Spiegel said the court ruling amounts to a full-blown showdown between Germany and the European Central Bank over the methods to shore up southern Europe’s debt markets.

“It is nothing less than a final reckoning with the crisis-management strategy pursued by the ECB. The German justices insist that the German constitution sets limits on the ECB’s crisis strategy. In a worst-case scenario, the Court could forbid Berlin from contributing to efforts to save the euro or even force Germany to leave the currency zone entirely,” it said.

The warning came as market analysts began to see the darker implications of the ruling, which was initially seen as a green light for the ECB’s bond operations.

From the London Telegraph again, a contrarian take:

Schaeuble: German court decision no threat to eurozone

  • The German finance minister plays down damage of ruling that powerful ECB tool could be unconstitutional

Curbing the European Central Bank’s (ECB) powers to do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone will not harm the single currency, the German finance minister has claimed.

Wolfgang Schaeuble said that although the ECB’s most effective tool for calming the eurozone debt markets, unlimited bond buying, could be ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, that financial markets are now confident that the eurozone will remain intact.

“I think the return of financial market confidence in the stability of the euro has been due not only, not even primarily, to the ECB’s (unlimited bond buying) announcement,” said Mr Schaeuble in an interview with Reuters.

New Europe debunks:

Mobile EU citizens are mainly young people looking for job opportunities

  • Mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less

A new study on the integration of mobile EU citizens was published today by the European Commission.

The study, which was carried out by Ernst and Young, focused on six European cities, chosen for the multinational composition of their population. The cities were Barcelona, Dublin, Hamburg, Lille, Prague and Turin. According to the study, most of the mobile EU citizens are young people looking for job opportunities.

The study showed that the the inflow of younger, working age EU citizens has had a positive economic impact in the cities under examination. For example in Turin, a local evaluation indicated that tax revenues from foreigners on the whole brought a net benefit of €1.5 billion to national public finances. Moreover, the newcomers have helped fill gaps in local labour markets, contributed to growth in new sectors and have helped balance out ageing populations. However, the study found that mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less and at the same time do not always benefit from the same access to housing and education.

On to Britain and ongoing misery from Sky News:

UK Floods Could Last Months, Scientist Warns

Some 1.6 million properties across Britain are now at risk of groundwater flooding and there is no end in sight, an expert says.

Scientists have told Sky News that groundwater levels are now so high that parts of Britain face a serious risk of flooding for weeks or even months to come.

Andy McKenzie, a groundwater scientist at the British Geological Survey, told Sky News that even if the rain stopped today, so much water is soaking through the soil that levels are likely to keep rising for another two months.

The risk of flooding could remain high until May, he said.

Figures exclusively revealed to Sky News show that boreholes used to measure the height of the water table are overflowing in many areas, with the highest levels ever recorded.

The Guardian covers austerian pluvial accounting:

Government raised bar for funding of flood defence schemes

  • Defra wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 it would spend on schemes

Coalition ministers made it more difficult for flood defence schemes to get funding by introducing tougher targets demanding 60% more “benefits” for every pound spent on protection, it has emerged.

Under the new rules brought in three years ago, the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 they would spend on schemes.

Previously, projects were simply expected to deliver more than £1 of damage avoided for every £1 spent, with an average across all schemes of £5 of damage avoided for every £1 spent.

On hand giveth whilst the other taketh away, via Reuters:

Barclays to cut 12,000 jobs, pays bigger bonuses

Barclays said it would axe up to 12,000 jobs this year even as it raised bonuses for investment bankers, prompting fury among politicians and unions who said it had not learned the lessons of the financial crisis.

Britain’s third-biggest bank said up to 9 percent of employees could go, including 7,000 in Britain, as it tries to lower costs. The cuts are not concentrated in any one business area.

It said it paid 2.4 billion pounds ($3.9 billion) in incentive awards last year, raising bonuses at the investment bank by 13 percent despite a slump in its profits. The average bonus for the investment bank’s 26,200 staff was 60,100 pounds.

Critics of the bonus hike said it showed Britain’s biggest banks were still failing to heed the lessons of a financial crisis caused by dangerous risk taking and excessive pay.

The Independent calls the shots:

Revealed: Big Pharma’s hidden links to NHS policy, with senior MPs saying medical industry uses ‘wealth to influence government’

NHS bosses allowed a lobbying company working for some of the world’s biggest drugs and medical equipment firms to write a draft report which could help shape future health policy. NHS England commissioned a group called the Specialised Healthcare Alliance (SHCA) to consult with patients’ groups, charities and health organisations and produce a report feeding into its future five-year strategy for commissioning £12bn of services.

But the SHCA has confirmed to The Independent that it is entirely funded by commercial “members”. Its director, John Murray, is also a lobbyist whose company lists some of the world’s biggest drug and medical device firms as clients.

Mr Murray put his name on a foreword to the NHS England document along with James Palmer, the clinical director of specialised services at NHS England, with whom he admits he has had “many meetings [on] a wide range of organisations and interests”.

The findings raise significant questions about links between the lobbying industry and NHS England – a quango set up to run the NHS under the Government’s health reforms.

Hints of Banksters Behaving Badly from The Guardian:

Bank of England launches inquiry into forex manipulation claims

  • Senior currency trader says Bank officials condoned information sharing between traders under investigation

The Bank of England has launched an internal inquiry into allegations that its officials endorsed sharing of information between traders in the foreign exchange market, the central bank’s deputy governor told MPs.

The inquiry will examine claims that at a meeting between Bank officials and senior currency traders last April the officials said it was permissible for traders in different banks to share information about clients’ positions ahead of the setting of a benchmark rate in the foreign exchange market.

On to Iceland and a crisis resurrection from DutchNews.nl:

Icesave dispute reopened, Dutch and British demand €3.5bn

The Dutch and British authorities have reopened their dispute with Iceland over the bankruptcy of online bank Icesave by filing claims for up to €3.5bn from the Icelandic bank guarantee fund.

The Netherlands and Britain chose to compensate savers who lost billions when Iceland bank Landsbanki collapsed in 2008 from their own domestic guarantee schemes. At the time, this was seen as a sort of loan to Iceland.

However, last year a European court ruled Iceland itself was not responsible for repaying the cash.

Iceland again, and misbehavior in high places from the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Protest At Interior Ministry

Three organisations will be holding simultaneous protests at the Ministry of the Interior tomorrow at noon, demanding the minister’s resignation.

The Alda – Association for Sustainability and Democracy, activist organisation Attac and refugee and immigration rights group No Borders have all planned protests in front of the ministry at noon tomorrow. These protests call for the resignation of Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, whose ministry is being investigated by the police for allegedly leaking a memo which falsely impugned on Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. Lawyers for both Tony and Evelyn filed charges against the ministry, including breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office.

Alda has called the ministry’s handling of the case as being “characterised by silence, arrogance, and contradictory statements”. No Borders has taken matters further, saying that Tony Omos’ asylum case should be re-introduced for consideration in light of the unfair treatment he has received.

Norway next, with a familiar theme from EUbusiness:

Norway’s populists demand immigration referendum

Days after the Swiss narrowly voted to curb immigration from the EU, Norway’s populist right-wing party on Tuesday demanded a similar referendum in the prosperous Nordic country.

“I won’t take a stance on a quota system like the one the Swiss people have voted for,” said Mazyar Keshvari, immigration spokesman for the Progress Party, a member of the ruling coalition which wants a more restrictive immigration policy.

“But the idea of a referendum is interesting and Norway should also organise a referendum on immigration. I’m completely certain that a majority wants to tighten up” the policy.

Norway is not a member of the EU but is included in the European Economic Area and the Schengen Area which allows relatively unrestricted movement of citizens.

Spain next, and departures from El País:

Is the crisis fueling an exodus?

Studies are trying to pinpoint just how many people are leaving Spain due to rampant unemployment

What if the Spanish exodus caused by the crisis was not quite as massive as we have been led to believe? This is the question that drives a recent study by Carmen González Enríquez, of the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank. Based on information gathered from Spanish consulates, the researcher notes that only two percent of nationals living abroad are Spaniards who left because of the crisis. That is just 39,912 people.

But what if it was the other way around, and we were in fact underestimating the extent of the trend? This is what Amparo González Ferrer, a sociologist and demographics specialist at the CSIC National Research Council, claims. She says that the number of émigrés who left the country between 2008 and 2012 — rather than the number of Spaniards living abroad — is closer to 700,000 than the official figure of 225,000. That Spain is losing population to emigration is unquestionable in view of the data. The latest census report by the National Statistics Institute (INE), containing data up to January 2013, shows a drop of 135,538 people during 2012, taking the population down to 47,129,783.

But how many Spaniards are actually leaving due to the economic situation? There is a debate among the scientific community because of the absence of a statistical mechanism that can quickly and efficiently register the departure of nationals.

And a blow to Iberian Brits from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s UK expats to lose free NHS health care

Thousands of British expats who have taken early retirement in Spain will now have to get private health insurance following the UK government’s decision to scrap free access to their local Spanish health care system.

The change in legislation, set to be implemented on April 1st, will affect only those who haven’t already completed a Social Security residual form S1 before leaving the UK.

However, once their current form comes to an end, jobless UK expats in Spain are likely to also be obliged to buy private medical insurance.

Up to now, unemployed Brits in Spain and other EEA countries who were under the age of 65 were able to pass on their health care costs to the UK Treasury.

And a case of Royals Behaving Badly from El País:

Prosecutor seeks 19 years in prison for princess’s husband Urdangarin

  • More than half of Nóos case suspects may not face charges
  • Infanta Cristina could be required to pay 600,000 in civil liability
  • Princess Cristina will have to return 600,000 euros if husband found guilty

After Princess Cristina’s unprecedented testimony before an investigating judge in Palma de Mallorca on Saturday, the anticorruption prosecutor in the Nóos investigation, Pedro Horrach, maintains that the infanta should not be implicated in the business dealings of her husband, former Olympic handball medalist Iñaki Urdangarin, and has also stated that over half of the 40 official suspects in the case should not face charges.

However, the prosecutor has now asked that Urdangarin, the Duke of Palma, should face a 19-year prison sentence and his former business partner Diego Torres 15 years, both on charges of embezzlement, falsifying documents, tax fraud and other financial crimes. Torres’ brother-in-law and financial advisor, Miguel Tejeiro, who designed the shell companies and tax fiddles though which Torres and Urdangarin allegedly funneled millions of euros of public money, also faces 19 years if found guilty.

On to Italy and a low rating from ANSAmed:

Italy bottom in EU for labour-cost competitiveness

  • 100 euros of labout costs generated 126% of added value in 2010

Italy is the bottom of the European Union when it comes to the competitiveness of labour costs, national statistics agency Istat said in a report Tuesday. Istat said every 100 euros an Italian business spent on labour costs in 2010, the most recent year in which there is comparative data for the rest of the EU, generated added value of 126%.

This was lowest in the EU and way behind the figure of 211.7% for Romania. Istat said that labour-cost competitiveness improved in 2011, with every 100 euros of labour costs generating 128.5% of added value.(ANSAmed).

Bunga Bunga politics from Deutsche Welle:

Berlusconi back on trial for political corruption

Italy’s scandal-ridden former premier Silvio Berlusconi is back in court yet again. This time he is facing charges of having bribed an opposition politician to swap sides.

Silvio Berlusconi’s latest trial opened in the southern Italian city of Naples on Tuesday, with the former premier facing charges of having used bribery to persuade a senator to join his party in 2006.

Berlusconi was not at Tuesday’s hearing and was not obliged to attend under Italian law.

He is accused of giving a 3-million-euro ($4.1-million) bribe to senator Sergio De Gregorio to entice him into leaving the anti-corruption Italy of Values party to join Berlusconi’s own People of Freedom party. The prosecution sees the bribe as part of a plan to bring down the-then center-left coalition of Romano Prodi.

Prodi still won in 2006, but his coalition finally collapsed in 2008, paving the way for early elections and Berlusconi’s return to power. De Gregorio, who had formed part of Prodi’s coalition, defected to Berlusconi’s conservatives and was re-elected in that capacity in 2008.

And from Deutsche Welle, resurrection?:

Berlusconi comeback in European elections?

Silvio Berlusconi is planning his comeback in Europe. Thus far, Brussels isn’t taking the idea too seriously. But his appeal at the ECJ and a political rehabilitation in Italy might make it possible.

Those who know Silvio Berlusconi won’t be surprised that he is planning a comeback on an international platform. At a meeting with his re-established political party, Forza Italia, in January, the former Italian prime minister announced his plans to run for office during European elections in May 2014 – despite the fact that a law forbids him from doing exactly that.

The so-called “Legge Severino” is a law prohibiting convicts to run for a post for six years. And then there’s the Mediaset verdict imposing a two-year-ban from public office; both obstacles in the way of the former premier, who was convicted on tax fraud charges and is currently facing more recent charges of bribery.

For a while now, Berlusconi’s lawyers have been working on a plan to circumvent the “Severino” law, according to reports in the Italian media. That plan leads directly to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxemburg, where Berlusconi has already filed for appeal proceedings.

ANSAmed grimly enumerates:

Almost one in four Italians in dire straits

  • 24.9% of households in situation of ‘deprivation’

Almost one in four Italian households, 24.9%, are in a situation of “deprivation”, Istat said Tuesday, as they are positive for at least three of the statistics agency’s nine factors of economic hardship. These include the inability to meet unexpected expenses, being behind in loan payments or being unable to afford a meal with a high protein content at least once every two days.

Istat said the percentage of people in a situation of deprivation was 22.3% in 2011, when Italy entered its longest postwar recession.

More from TheLocal.it:

Italians pay almost as much tax as the Swedes

Average tax levels in Italy grew from 41.3 percent in 2000 to 42.5 percent in 2011, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the average rate in Sweden, where taxpayers receive favourable social benefits in return for their high contributions, actually fell from 51.7 percent in 2000 to 44.7 percent in 2012.

Taxes in Italy might be almost as high as in Sweden, but the main gripe among Italians is that they don’t get the same high standard of services in return, whether that be in healthcare, education or public transport.

Istat’s report, called Noi Italia, also revealed that just 61 percent of Italians between the ages of 20 and 64 have jobs, well below the 75 percent employment level stipulated by the European Union, had jobs in 2012.

Women fared the worst, with just 50.5 percent – one of the worst rates in Europe – being in work in 2012, while 71.6 percent of working-age men were employed.

From Reuters, revelatory blowback:

Italian President Napolitano under fire over Monti appointment

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano faced fierce criticism on Monday over reports that he asked Mario Monti about replacing Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister months before his government fell at the height of the euro zone crisis in 2011.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party expressed “bitterness and shock” at the reports, based on interviews with Monti and others in a forthcoming book by journalist Alan Friedman, extract of which were published by the Financial Times and the Corriere della Sera newspapers.

Although the events recounted in the book occurred more than two years ago, they risk reopening wounds between the parties that could complicate the already difficult situation facing Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s fragile ruling coalition, which is struggling to adopt economic and political reforms.

“We are dismayed to learn that, as early as June 2011, the head of state was actively taking steps to bring down the Berlusconi government and replace him with Mario Monti,” the parliamentary floor leaders of Forza Italia, Renato Brunetta and Paolo Romani, said in a statement.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, a Cypriot uptick, Mexican vigilante motives, Myanmar miseries, troubles for Australian industry and ministerial corporateering, Chinese strategy, bad numbers for Japan, environmental woes, a Big Agra GMO win, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headline of the day II: EconoAggroGrecoCrises


Our collection of headlines from the economic, political, and environmental realms opens on a progressive profession from BBC News:

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio targets income gap ‘threat’

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to raise the minimum wage and issue ID papers to undocumented immigrants.

Setting out the policies of his new administration in a State of the City address, Mr de Blasio took aim at the city’s yawning inequality gap.

The 52-year-old also wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten programmes.

Elected in November, he is New York’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.

From The Guardian, eyes on Oakland from across the pond:

The city that told Google to get lost

Highly paid employees are pushing up rents near the tech giant’s California headquarters, forcing locals out and destroying communities, say activists. Now Oakland’s residents are fighting back – hard. But are they too late?

If pushing your enemy into the sea signifies success, then Google’s decision to start ferrying workers to its campus by boat suggests the revolt against big technology companies is going well. Standing on the docks of Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, last week, you could watch the Googlers board the ferry, one by one, and swoosh through the chill, grey waters of the bay towards the company’s Mountain View headquarters, 30 or so miles to the south.

Not exactly Dunkirk, but from afar you might have detected a whiff of evacuation, if not retreat. The ferry from Oakland – a week-long pilot programme – joined a similar catamaran service for Google workers in San Francisco launched last month. The search engine giant is not doing it for the bracing sea air. It is a response to blockades and assaults against buses that shuttle employees to work.

From The Independent, that old time religion:

Utah’s Mormons celebrate as polygamy restrictions are struck down

  • Part of law was ruled in violation of First Amendment

A US federal judge has struck down a key part of Utah’s law banning polygamy – providing welcome relief to one practising Mormon family. Joe Darger, who described himself as an “independent Mormon fundamentalist”, has 25 children with three wives.

US District Judge Clark Waddoups threw out part of a bill which allows the state to use cohabitation as a basis for prosecution, although Utah does still prohibit bigamy.

Reuters records a visit:

Obama, France’s Hollande make pilgrimage to Jefferson’s Monticello

President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande toured Thomas Jefferson’s plantation estate on Monday in a show of solidarity for Franco-American ties that have endured for more than two centuries despite the occasional tempest.

The visit to Monticello, home to America’s third president, served to showcase a relationship that stretches back to the founding of the United States in the late 18th century, an alliance still strong despite spats over U.S. eavesdropping and trade talks with the European Union.

Hollande, 59, who split from his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, last month after an affair with an actress, arrived solo for the first state visit hosted by Obama since he won a second term in 2012.

Heading north of the border with an offer Rob Ford can’t refuse from The Independent:

Canada installs first ever crack-pipe vending machines

  • Controversial vending machines dispense them for $0.25 in attempt to curb spread of HIV and hepatitis

A Canadian NGO has installed crack pipe vending machines in the city of Vancouver in a bid to curb the spread of HIV and hepatitis among users.

The polka-dot vending machines are operated by the Portland Hotel Society, a drug treatment centre, and dispense newly packaged crack pipes like snacks for $0.25 (13p).

The group says the pipes are less likely to chip and cut users’ mouths as a resulting of overheating and overuse, preventing the spread of disease among crack addicts.

“They don’t run the risk of then sharing pipes, or pipes that are chipped or broken,” Kailin See told CTV Vancouver.

On to Europe with bankster news from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

Eurozone banks will be allowed to fail, says regulator

The incoming head of Europe’s new single banking supervisory authority has warned that weak eurozone banks will be allowed to fail following upcoming stress tests, in an interview in Monday’s Financial Times.

Frenchwoman Daniele Nouy was giving her first interview since being appointed chief of the Single Supervisory Mechanism, set up as part of attempts to stabilise the EU’s banking system and shift the financial costs of failed banks away from sovereign governments

“We have to accept that some banks have no future,” she told the FT. “We have to let some disappear in an orderly fashion, and not necessarily try to merge them with other institutions”.

EurActiv regulates with dubious efficacy:

EU rules to light up derivatives markets set for shaky start

New rules coming into force in Europe this week to shine more light on the $700 trillion (€513 trillion) derivatives markets will take years to produce a clearer picture of these complex products which were at the heart of the financial crisis.

When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 markets were in the dark over a tangle of derivatives on the US investment bank’s books. Financial markets froze because of uncertainty about who was exposed to Lehman’s derivatives, such as credit default swaps or interest rate swaps. US insurer AIG also ran up big losses linked to derivatives.

In response, politicians and regulators around the world called for action to make risks easier to spot in this opaque part of global financial markets.

The new EU rules, coming in on Wednesday, aim to increase transparency by requiring reporting of transactions.

On to Britain and a warning from the London Telegraph:

Lord Turner: UK economy is like 90s Japan

  • City regulator during the 2007/8 crisis says that the UK has not rebalanced its economy, and risks further shocks as a result

Lord Turner has warned that the UK has failed to rebalance its economy and is simply repeating the errors made in the run-up to the 2007/8 financial crisis.

The self-styled technocrat, who was chairman of the City regulator until last April, likened the domestic economy over the last five years to Japan in the 1990s.

The former Financial Services Authority chief – who made it on to the shortlist to replace Lord King as Governor of the Bank of England – said that although the economy was now showing obvious signs of growth, there was the potential that it will not be sustained due to the continued build up of credit in the system.

“The concerning thing about the UK economy is that from 2009 until early last year, a lot of the debate was around the need to rebalance, from being over focused on financial services and the housing market,” Lord Turner told The Telegraph.

The Independent doesn’t feel the love:

Where is the love? Majority of international students in the UK do not feel welcome

The majority of international students studying in the UK feel unwelcome in the country with a significant number saying they would not recommend to their friends that they come here to attend university, says a survey published on Monday.

A study of the attitudes of 3,100 international students by the National Union of Students revealed that more than 50 per cent believed the UK Government was either “not welcoming” or “not welcoming at all towards overseas students”.

Figures show PhD students are most likely to feel unwelcome (65.8 per cent) with those from Japan (64.5 per cent), Nigeria (62.8 per cent) and India (62 per cent) the next most likely to say they have received hostile treatment. Students from India, Pakistan and Nigeria are most likely to advise their friends not to study here.

The Guardian, with banksters doing what bankster do:

City bonus row reignites with Barclays to admit £2bn in payments

  • Bonus payout contrasts with bank boss Antony Jenkins’ pledge for restraint and helps push total since 2008 crisis towards £80bn

Controversy over City bonuses will be reignited this week when Barclays admits it paid its staff more than last year, fuelling predictions that the amount of bonuses paid out across the Square Mile since the 2008 crisis could soon hit £80bn.

Barclays is expected to reveal on Tuesday that its bonus pot topped £2bn last year – more than it paid out in the previous 12 months – despite a pledge by its boss Antony Jenkins to show restraint on pay.

Starting the reporting season for the high-street banks, Barclays will be followed in the coming fortnight by bailed-out banks Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, as well as HSBC, in disclosing how much each has paid in bonuses for 2013.

The Irish Times gives us the latest instance of Banksters Behaving Badly, this time involving the €12.3 million collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, the biggest bustout in Irish history:

Seán Quinn suspected Anglo was doing ‘a sweetheart deal’

  • Businessman tells court the bank knew it was in serious trouble from November 2007

Former businessman Sean Quinn has told the Anglo Irish Bank trial that he suspected Anglo was “doing a sweetheart deal” when it forced him to sell his stake in the bank.

Mr Quinn, who admitted he used to be Ireland’s richest man, said he could not understand why the share price of Anglo fell so much in July 2008 as the deal was going through. He said that he approached a solicitor in London about the matter.

Mr Quinn told Dublin Circuit Criminal Court that the bank knew from November 2007 that it was in serious trouble but that Sean FitzPatrick and David Drumm maintained it was “in rude health” as late as September 2008, shortly after the bank guarantee.

On to France and presidential woes from The Guardian:

Sluggish French growth figures pile more pressure on François Hollande

  • Bank of France forecasts economy will grow 0.2% in January-March compared with the final quarter of 2013

France will eke out meagre economic growth in the first three months of 2014, a spokesman for the central bank said on Monday, as the eurozone’s second-biggest economy struggles to avoid falling further behind the pack.

Data on Monday indicated that French industrial production dropped 0.3% in December by comparison with November, falling short of expectations, although the figure for the fourth quarter as a whole was positive.

The weakness of France’s recovery is adding to pressure on President François Hollande to deliver faster growth. The deeply unpopular Socialist leader has embarked on a shift to more business-friendly policies to bring down near-record unemployment.

France 24 hits the picket lines:

Mass taxi strike strands Paris commuters, tourists

Hundreds of taxis gathered at Paris airports before dawn on Monday as part of a nationwide protest against what cab drivers say is unfair competition posed by a recent surge in popularity of chauffeured cars offered by private companies, or VTCs.

The striking taxis gathered at 6am local time at Charles de Gaulle airport amid a cacophony of blaring horns and under a banner reading “55,000 angry taxis”, with one airport source saying no taxis were servicing the airport, a major international hub.

At regional hub Orly, a hundred vehicles blocked taxi queues to prevent cars from picking up passengers.

Would-be taxi drivers face exorbitant fees ahead of receiving an operating license, often running into the hundreds of thousands.

Switzerland next, and post-electoral anxiety from TheLocal.ch:

Government in damage control mode after vote

Reeling from a vote to cap EU immigration, Switzerland’s government and business community moved on Monday to limit the damage to trade ties with the big European bloc.

Swiss President and Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Burkhalter played down talk of a “Black Sunday” in ties with Brussels, after 50.3 percent of voters backed a referendum proposal to end a seven-year-old pact that gave equal footing to most EU citizens in the Swiss labour market.

“We need to avoid that kind of language,” he told reporters.

“Switzerland is not going to rip up its deal with the EU on freedom of movement,” he insisted.

EUbusiness covers another set of winners:

Swiss vote is boon for far-right ahead of EU parliament vote

Anti-EU parties already expected to do well in European Parliament elections in May claim the Swiss vote to curb immigration vindicates their stand.

“What the Swiss can do, we can do too,” said Geert Wilders, leader of Holland’s extreme-right PVV.

France’s extreme right National Front party too hailed “the Swiss people’s lucidity,” calling for Paris to stop “mass immigration” while Austria’s far-right FPO party said the country would vote the same way given the chance.

“With the (Swiss) referendum, it becomes more likely that the anti-Europeans will represent the biggest group in the European parliament, with a quarter of the MEPs,” German daily Tagesspiegel said.

Another potential blowback from New Europe:

After the Swiss referendum: the possible return of bank secrecy

The result of the Sunday referendum in Switzerland has stunned the EU. Many politicians reacted with dismay, sometimes even bordering on anger. Thus, Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean Asselborn said: “I respect the decision of the Swiss people… but the Swiss people must also respect the values of the EU.”

The same tone was heard from the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said on Monday that Europe would review its relations with Switzerland after the “worrying” Swiss vote to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union. “In my opinion it’s bad news both for Europe and for the Swiss because Switzerland will be penalised if it withdraws,” Fabius said. “We’re going to review our relations with Switzerland,” he said.

The withdrawal in question would be Switzerland’s retreat from the Schengen agreement, of which Switzerland is one of the signatories, but which cannot be applied selectively.

The Commission was less vociferous, with the spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen stating on Monday only that “ The Commission regrets the initiative, since it infringes the principle of the free movement”. “Will examine politically and juridically our relations with Switzerland, but restrictions are unacceptable”, she said.”

Counting costs with EUobserver:

Swiss vote jeopardises involvement in multi-billion EU programmes

The EU’s multi-billion research programme Horizon 2020 and its Erasmus student exchange with Switzerland hang in the balance following a Swiss vote over the weekend in favour imposing quotas on EU migrants.

The two would automatically be suspended should Switzerland move to include limits on EU’s newest member state, Croatia. Both agreements are conditioned on free movement.

Croatia is scheduled to sign off on a reciprocal free movement agreement with Switzerland on 1 July. All other member states have a similar agreement.

Still more blowback from Deutsche Welle:

Swiss vote to stem immigration could cause ‘a lot of problems’

Switzerland’s neighbors and the EU say they regret the country’s narrow vote to limit annual migration inflows. Veteran German politician Wolfgang Schäuble warns of “a lot of problems” for the Swiss government in Bern.

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said that Germany respected the result of Switzerland’s vote. However, he added, it “raises considerable problems,” and said that Merkel had repeatedly stated free movement was a “prized asset” for Germany.

The European Commission said in a statement released after the referendum that it regretted the decision, and would “analyze the consequences of this initiative to our relations in general.”

Despite voicing regret about the result, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned against ignoring the sentiment expressed.

“Of course this does show a little that people are increasingly uneasy about unlimited freedom of movement in this world of globalization. I believe we must take this seriously,” Schäuble said on ARD public television. “We regret this decision. It will cause a lot of problems for Switzerland.”

And a parallel story from TheLocal.ch:

Foreigner jobless rate rises again in January

The unemployment rate in Switzerland remained at 3.5 percent in January, unchanged from the previous month, but the percentage of expats out of work rose again, figures released by the government showed on Monday.

The number of people registered for jobless benefits edged higher to 153,260 people, up 3,823 from December 2013, the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) said.

But the level of unemployed foreigners in the country jumped significantly to 7.1 percent in January from 6.9 percent the previous month, while the rate for Swiss nationals stayed unchanged at 2.4 percent.

The rate of expat jobless in Switzerland, accounting for almost half the unemployed in the country, has grown every month for the past several months.

On to Spain, and a change underway from TheLocal.es:

3.5 million ‘Spanish’ Jews to apply for citizenship

Jewish associations expect 3.5 million Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship after Spain’s Justice Ministry approved a draft law which will allow them to return to the country their ancestors were kicked out of more than 500 years ago.

The descendants of Sephardic Jews banished from Spain in 1492 will now be able to regain Spanish nationality under a new law approved by Madrid’s Cabinet of Ministers on Friday.

Those who can prove their Spanish origins will be able to apply for dual nationality at the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, El Mundo newspaper reported on Sunday.

According to Israel’s Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese Association (OLEI), the newly-approved legislation has already resulted in a flurry of applications from Sephardic Jews around the world.

TheLocal.es trods the boards:

Abortion takes centre stage at Spain’s Oscars

A controversial plan in Spain to scrap easy access to abortions took centre stage at the Goya Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, with several actresses slamming the reform as they accepted their prizes.

The ceremony was broadcast live on public television network TVE to an estimated audience of 3.6 million people.

The issue has prompted deep debate and big protests in Spain, with many opposed to the conservative government’s draft law unveiled in December that would allow abortion only in cases of rape or health risk to the mother.

Critics say the measure scrapping more liberal access to abortion would throw the Catholic country back decades, when Spanish women had to go abroad to seek pregnancy terminations.

If the law is adopted, Spain would be the first country in the 28-member European Union to reverse legalizing abortion.

On to Portugal and a pronouncement from El País:

“Portugal is not going to need a second bailout”

  • Economy Minister António Pires de Lima says the program will be exited with a growing economy

May 17 is a key date for Portugal. It’s the day on which the 78-billion-euro bailout program it sought in April 2011 is due to end and Portugal will supposedly fully return to the sovereign debt market to fund itself. However, it remains to be seen how Spain’s Iberian neighbor will emerge from this financial assistance program; whether it will be a clean break without any further support, or the current bailout will be replaced by a softer rescue package that still involves some form of external help.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, Portuguese Economy Minister António Pires de Lima explains that the center-right coalition government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho will unveil its plans when it believes the moment is right to do so. He is encouraged by the fact the Portuguese economy is already on the road to recovery, although this has yet to become a reality for the population at large.

Among other draconian measures, a brutal increase in taxes, the elimination of extra payments for civil servants and pensioners, wage cuts, and the increase in the standard value-added tax rate to 23 percent have all hit the middle classes hard. The 2014 state budget maintains the fiscal adjustment drive of the previous two years. On top of the withdrawal of extra payments and cuts in salaries introduced in 2012 and the rise in taxes in 2013, this year’s budget also includes a further cut in wages for civil servants earning more than 675 euros a month.

The Portugal News excludes:

Dictator can’t buy Portuguese bank- MEP

Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes told Lusa on Friday that the Bank of Portugal and the Portuguese Stock Market Regulator (CMVM) had to fulfill “their role” and stop Equatorial Guinea buying into troubled bank Banif and that she was going to ask the European Commission (EC) to step in.

“This is yet another case where I have to intervene and ask the EC to ensure that a bank that is being rescued with funds that are part of Portugal’s bailout loan, and which are going to have to be paid back by Portuguese taxpayers, is not bought up in part by a corrupt and criminal regime as part of a money laundering scheme”, the Socialist MEP told Lusa News Agency.

“I think it is unbelievable that something like this can happen and hope that the Bank of Portugal and the CMVM do their job properly and do not allow this to happen because it is extremely dangerous for BANIF and I would like to alert all account holders about how incredibly dangerous it is going to be to have financing from somewhere like Equatorial Guinea, a sinister regime that is flagged on all indexes of dictatorial, miserable regimes where the population gets poorer and poorer while the presidential family lines their pockets on a daily basis”, she said.

On to Italy and more bad news from TheLocal.it:

Recovery hopes dwindle as Italian industry lags

A 0.9-percent slump in Italy’s industrial production in December, following three months of consecutive increases, disappointed investors on Monday and cast a shadow over hopes for a recovery this year.

The official data from the Istat agency showed industrial production was also down 0.7 percent from December 2012 and down 3.0 percent over all of 2013.

Analysts had expected the monthly figure to remain unchanged, after the economy in the third quarter formally ended two painful years of recession with zero growth in Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“The result does not question the forecast of a return to growth in the fourth quarter of 2013 but it does confirm that the recovery will be very gradual,” said Paolo Mameli, an economist from Intesa Sanpaolo bank. The fourth quarter figure will be announced on Friday.

After the jump, the latest crises news from Greece, Bosnian outrage, Ukrainian regime change dreaming, Mexican vigilantes, Indian worries and wages, Thai troubles, neoliberalism moves in Myanmar, development bank devastation in Cambodia, Aussie auto woes, the latest Chinese angst, more down numbers in Japan, energy environmental woes, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Humans and landscapes, a complex interaction


On his UC Berkeley faculty website, archaeologist Patrick V. Kirch lists his specialties as “Prehistory and ethnography of Oceania, ethnoarchaeology and settlement archaeology, prehistoric agricultural systems, cultural ecology and paleoenvironmentalism, ethnobotany and ethnoscience, development of complex societies in Oceania.”

In this presentation Dr. Kirch applies the ideas of the cultural landscape developed by an earlier Berkeley geographer, Carl O. Sauer, to human interaction with the landscapes of three Polynesian cultures, those of Mangareva, Mo’orea, and Hawaii.

What kept the Polynesian Islands so green? In part, the phosphorus blown in the winds in dust from China and Mongolia.

But some islands, like those of the Mangareva archipelago and Easter Island, lay in regions missed by the winds from Asia, leaving one other source of phosphorus and other key soil nutrients, populations of fish-eating, guano-pooping sea birds.

Todat the once-forested islets of Mangareva, the smallest, most barren, and most ancient of the three, today resemble a nearly barren desert islands, landscapes created in large part by the relatively late arrival of Polynesians who eliminated or decimated the once varied native bird populations.

Mo’orea is a much younger island, with the human population living in intimate relationship with an evolving and eroding landscape, shifting settlement as new soils are exposed and older soils become depleted.

And then there’s Hawaii, a still-growing landscape but nonetheless precarious landscapes populated by an emerging state society that had neared the carrying capacity of the delicate landscape when Europeans arrived, along with the diseases that laid waste to the Polynesians.

From University of California Television, an important reminder of just how delicate our world really is:

Island Landscapes or Sauer Among the Polynesians

Program notes:

Geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer demonstrated through his work and writings that landscapes are the long-term contingent product of interactions between natural processes and cultural forces. In this lecture, Patrick Kirch, Professor of Anthropology and Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, applies the concept of landscape to the islands of Polynesia. Drawing upon recent multi-disciplinary research, Kirch shows how certain natural properties of islands shaped the course of cultural and social evolution of island peoples, at the same time that cumulative effect of human actions irreversibly altered island environments. Series: “UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures” [2/2014]

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroSinoFukuFuel


We begin our collection of headlines form the economic, political, and environmental realms with a new reality from CNBC:

More men in their prime working years lack jobs, says WSJ

A large number of men who are still in their prime working years find themselves without jobs for extended periods, despite an improving economy, according to a piece in The Wall Street Journal.

The trend has been building for decades. The percentage of unemployed men 25 to 54 more than doubled between the early 1970s and 2007, from 6 percent to 13 percent, before jumping to 20 percent in the depths of the recession in 2009, according to the article.

As of December 2013, 17 percent of men are not working. Of that group, about two-thirds are not looking for work, which excludes them from the government’s official unemployment numbers.

Economists were alarmed to learn that 40 percent of those looking have been out of work for six months or more, according to the Journal. Some had expected employment figures to rebound to pre-recession levels, but the trend is actually getting worse.

One response, via The Hill:

Senate rejects jobless benefits

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked Democrats’ third attempt to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

The Senate voted 58-40 Thursday on a proposal that would have continued unemployment insurance for three months, just short of the 60 votes needed to end debate.

“I’m beginning to believe there is nothing that will get Republicans to yes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “It’s a ‘no’ vote because they don’t want to extend unemployment insurance.”

Any excuse to gut environmental laws, via Salon:

House GOP overrides Endangered Species Act protections to pass California water bill

  • The bill would undermine years of conservation efforts in Northern California

Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would override federal rules and protections in California to allocate more water to farmers.

It would allow state and federal officials to pump more water out the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta in Northern California, a source of drinking water to 22 million Californians and home to endangered salmon, in what Gov. Jerry Brown called “an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis” and Rep. John Garamendi (D) referred to as “a theft of water from someone to give to somebody else, plain and simple.”

CNBC shivers in anticipation:

Hedge funds bet on US gas shortage as cold boosts demand

An unexpected fear haunts the land of the shale bonanza story: running low on natural gas.

Furnaces, utilities and power plants have guzzled trillions of cubic feet of the fuel as the U.S. slogs through what may be recorded as the coldest winter since the invention of gas futures in 1990.

Hedge funds are now betting the country will face a critical shortage before spring. The wager comes with long odds but a huge possible payout.

“It’s been a relentless cold,” says Eric Bass, managing partner at Velite Benchmark Capital Management, a Houston gas hedge fund. “This market has slowly started to realize there could potentially be an inventory problem.”

From Al Jazeera America, Banksters Behaving Badly™:

Banks under investigation for alleged currency exchange rate-fixing

  • Barclays, Goldman Sachs among institutions being investigated for allegedly manipulating foreign exchange markets

New York state’s financial regulator has opened an investigation into alleged manipulation of foreign exchange markets and is demanding documents from more than a dozen banks, a source familiar with the investigation told Al Jazeera.

Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Goldman Sachs and a number of other large banks that the Department of Financial Services regulates will be investigated in the probe, the source said.

Authorities in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore have opened probes into whether the large banks manipulated foreign exchange rates used to set the value of trillions of dollars of investments.

Investigators suspect that traders from different banks may have used chat rooms to share information about trades in ways that benefited their positions.

Profligacy from The Guardian:

National lab in California scolded over Lusitania project

  • $80,000 in taxpayer money spent to help National Geographic with documentary about sinking of the ship during WWI

A federal watchdog agency reprimanded a national lab in Northern California for spending more than $80,000 in taxpayer money to help National Geographic with a documentary film about the sinking of the ship Lusitania during World War I.

The Energy Department’s inspector general said in a report issued last week that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory improperly used its licensing and royalty fees to perform tests for the documentary and should not have done the work.

“Federal officials at Livermore knew about it and didn’t take any action,” said Rickey Hass, a deputy inspector general at the Energy Department. “The work itself was not really the issue, but it was inappropriate in that it may have competed with private sector organizations and was funded with money that should have not been used for that purpose. It also wasn’t necessarily reported with complete transparency.”

NBC News greens the green:

Pot buyers add more than $1M to Colorado tax coffers

In the first month of legal recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, retailers who shared their proprietary data with NBC News say they have collected $1.24 million in tax revenue.

Half of the state’s 35 licensed recreational retailers participated in the NBC News survey. The 18 retailers shared the first 27 days of their tax data because they say they believe it will help their image.

In the first month of operation, sellers of recreational marijuana are doing brisk business in Colorado. One seller said she averages about $20,000 a day in sales.

Blowback from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

India warns US of consequences on visa reform

India has warned the United States of consequences for its companies if lawmakers tighten visa rules on high-tech firms as part of an immigration overhaul.

Ambassador Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that India would see a decision to restrict certain temporary visas for skilled workers as a sign that the US economy is becoming less open for business.

“We think this is actually going to be harmful to us. It would be harmful to the American economy and, frankly, it would be harmful to the relationship” between the two countries, Jaishankar told AFP in an interview.

Sensible advice from Salon:

Elizabeth Warren calls on Obama to nominate fewer corporate judges

  • Massachusetts’ senior senator promotes more professional diversity in U.S. courts

Speaking at an event hosted by the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, an association of more than 100 groups who work on improving the justice system, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized President Obama for putting forward so many judicial nominees whose prior experience was mainly with big firms representing corporations.

“We face a federal bench that has a striking lack of diversity,” said Warren. “President Obama has supported some notable exceptions but … the president’s nominees have thus far been largely in line with the prior statistics.”

Repeating points made in the AFJ’s recent report on the federal judiciary’s excess of former corporate lawyers, Warren noted that 71 percent of Obama nominees’ prior experience was chiefly defending corporations. Just 3.6 percent of Obama’s nominees, according to the report, have previously worked mainly for public interest organizations.

Warren warned that, in America, “Power is becoming more and more concentrated on one side.” She recommended “professional diversity” in the judiciary, saying it would be “one way to insulate the courts from corporate capture.”

Heading north of the border with capital flight woes of another kind from South China Morning Post:

Exclusive: How mainland millionaires overwhelmed Canada visa scheme

Mainland millionaires swamped HK consulate with applications and led to freezing of world’s most popular investor immigration scheme

Canadian immigration department spreadsheets obtained by the Post show how the huge number of applications forced the government in Ottawa to freeze the world’s most popular wealth-based migration scheme. One document, dated January 8 last year, showed there was a backlog of 53,580 Hong Kong-based applications for Canadian federal investor visas.

That represented more than 70 per cent of the global backlog. And attempts by Ottawa in 2010 to tighten access to the coveted visas by doubling the wealth criteria had the effect of increasing Chinese domination. In 2011, applications sent to the Hong Kong consulate made up 86 per cent of the global total.

Analysis of arrival data suggests that about 99 per cent of applications in Hong Kong were lodged by mainlanders. Under the scheme’s current limits, applicants worth at least C$1.6 million (HK$11.2 million) receive residency if they “invest” C$800,000 in the form of a five-year interest-free loan to Canada.

On to Europe, first with BBC News:

ECB rejects deflation fears as it holds rates at 0.25%

The head of the European Central Bank (ECB) has said deflation is not a threat to the eurozone economy.

The ECB kept its benchmark interest rate at 0.25% after its latest meeting. The rate was cut to its current record low in November.

ECB president Mario Draghi said: “We have to dispense with this idea of deflation. The question is – is there deflation? The answer is no.”

Eurozone inflation slowed to 0.7% in January from 0.8% in December. The figure fuelled worries about whether the euro bloc could suffer deflation, potentially de-railing economic growth.

Another take from the London Telegraph:

Split ECB paralysed as deflation draws closer, tightening job vice in southern Europe

  • Mario Draghi said the ECB’s council had discussed a wide range of measures but needed more information

The European Central Bank has brushed aside calls for radical action to head off deflation and relieve pressure on emerging markets, denying that the eurozone is at risk of a Japanese-style trap.

Yields on German two-year notes almost doubled to 0.12pc as markets slashed expectations for future rate cuts, while the euro spiked 1.5 cents to more than $1.36 against the dollar, implying a further tightening of monetary conditions for Europe.

Mario Draghi, ECB president, said the bank is “alert to the risks, and stands willing and ready to act” if inflation falls even further below target or if the fragile recovery falters, but offered no clear guidance on future policy.

The Guardian hasn’t recovered:

Real wages likely to take six years to return to pre-crisis level

  • Average wages are at 2004 levels and it will take until six years before they return to 2009 peak according to leading thinktank
  • The Governor of Britain’s Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaks

Britons will have to wait six more years before their inflation-adjusted wages are back at pre-crisis levels and it “feels” like recovery, a leading thinktank has warned.

Average real wages are still at 2004 levels and it will take until 2020 before they return to their 2009 peak, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

“It’s a long way off,” said Simon Kirby, principal research fellow at the thinktank. “It will take a number of years before people actually start to feel the recovery.”

The gradual rise in wages could take even longer if Britain’s productivity performance, which has been “abysmal” in recent years, did not improve, he said.

BBC News splits:

Divorce rate up ‘because of recession’, report says

  • A wedding ring on the bible The recession of 2008/9 could be to blame for more marriages failing

The divorce rate in England and Wales has gone up, possibly because of the last recession, according to a report.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said there were 118,140 divorces in 2012, up 0.5% on 2011.

Between 2003 and 2009 there was a general downward trend in the number of divorces, but in 2010 they rose 4.9%.

“One theory suggests recession could contribute to a rise in partnership break-ups because of increased financial strain,” the report says.

Off to Iceland and an immigration crisis denied via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Minister Dismisses Ministry Employee Requests For Independent Investigation

Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir has allegedly denied requests from ministry staff for an independent investigation of the ministry over a leaked memo regarding a Nigerian asylum seeker.

DV reports that several ministry employees approached the minister with the suggestion that an independent investigator be brought in to examine the ministry with regards to the case of Tony Omos, a Nigerian asylum seeker who, along with the expecting mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph, had his reputation impugned by a memo which leaked to certain members of the press last November. The memo made allegations about Tony and Evelyn which later proved to be untrue.

The minister allegedly told the employees who requested the independent investigation that this was not going to happen. Ministry employees are reportedly unhappy with the minister and her assistants over the matter.

The uncuttest kind of all from TheLocal.no:

Norway politician wants jail for circumcisers

A leading politician for Norway’s Centre Party has stepped up calls for a ban on ritual male circumcision, or failing that up to 10 years in prison, for those who botch the operation, as the government debates a proposed new law on the practice.

Jenny Klinge, the party’s justice spo complained about the stark difference in penalties under law for those who injure children through female genital mutilation and those who injure them through circumcision.

“It can not be such that when a boy dies, then it’s not punished at all, while if a girl dies it’s punishable by up to 10 years,”  Klinge said in parliament, according to NRK.

She called again for a ban, but said that failing that significant penalties should be put in place for those who injure children during the operation.

Danish austerity strikes again,, via the Copenhagen Post:

Parliament expected to end EU insurance coverage

  • As of August, CPR card will no longer cover Danish residents in other EU countries

You may want to be more careful on future trips to other EU countries. Today, parliament is expect to abolish the public travel insurance provided by the yellow health insurance card. According to DR Nyheder, a large majority will vote in favour of the bill, which then will come into effect by August.

When the proposal is passed, Danish residents will no longer have all their medical expenses paid when visiting another EU country. Instead they will fall under the same regulations as citizens of the respective country. To avoid unexpected medical bills on your next holiday in Europe, it will therefore be necessary to take out your own health insurance.

Nexit news from DutchNews.nl:

Leaving the EU would boost Dutch economy, report for PVV says

Leaving the European Union would boost the Dutch economy, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, said on Thursday, quoting a study drawn up by a UK agency.

The Capital Economics report says leaving the EU would allow the Netherlands to increase its prosperity in a way only possible in the distant past. Economic growth figures would be higher than if the Netherlands remains in the EU, the report states.

The Netherlands would no longer be tied to EU rules and requirements, allowing a freer hand to trade with other countries. Gross Domestic Product would be between 10% and 12% higher by 2035 if the Netherlands left the EU, Capital Economics said.

EurActiv rebuts:

Dijsselbloem counters Wilders’ EU exit claim

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who also heads the Eurogroup, has hit back at far-right politician Geert Wilders’ claim that leaving the European Union would be good for the Dutch economy.

“The Netherlands is an economic powerhouse in Europe. We earn the bulk of our money in trade with EU countries so the Netherlands has a lot of interest in a single market with easy trade,” Dijsselbloem told local media, adding that quitting the EU would be “very unwise”.

On to Germany and a case of the Benz from TheLocal.de:

Daimler enjoys record €9 billion profit

Luxury auto maker Daimler said on Thursday that it achieved record sales and profits in 2013, and it expects to achieve “significant” growth again this year.

“Daimler concluded the year 2013 with record levels of unit sales, revenue, EBIT [earnings before interest and tax] and net profit,” the car maker said in a statement.

“The company anticipates renewed growth in 2014,” it added.

Net profit climbed by 28 percent to €8.72 billion and underlying profit, as measured by earnings before interest and tax, was up 23 percent at €10.82 billion.

Europe Online declines:

German factory orders post surprise slump in December

German industrial orders posted a surprise 0.5-per-cent fall in December despite a rebound in demand from the eurozone, the Ministry of Economics said Thursday.

The decline in the monthly data failed to offset the surge in orders in November, which jumped by an upwardly revised 2.4 per cent as a result of strong demand for bulk orders from Europe’s biggest economy.

“The trend toward increasing demand for industrial products continues despite the slight decline in December,” the ministry said.

TheLocal.de lights a fuse:

Court grants EU migrants German jobless benefits

A German job centre will have to pay a jobless Spanish family unemployment benefits, a court ruled on Thursday, in an apparent contradiction of German law.

The Court of Social Affairs in Dortmund ruled unemployed immigrants from the European Union could claim Hartz IV unemployment benefits, in a judgment which decided in favour of European Union law over German.

European law states citizens from other EU countries must be treated equally, which includes access to benefits.

But German law grants exemptions by classifying Hartz IV as a “social benefit” which can be denied to EU citizens rather than a “special benefit” which cannot be. It means EU migrants who are in Germany but are not seeking work are excluded from claiming unemployment benefits.

On to France and a walkout ahead from TheLocal.fr:

French teachers to strike over August return

Summer holidays are sacred in France and even more so it seems for French teachers. One union has called for a strike after the government did the unthinkable and timetabled the start of the autumn term before the end of August.

Even though back to school for autumn 2014 is a full six months away—and school isn’t even out yet—the first strike of the next school year has already been called.

The members of the national union of secondary and high school teachers (Sydicat National des Lycées et Collèges) sent out warning on Wednesday of the strike pencilled in for the end of August. This time its not about pay cuts or a lack of funding, but a decision to make them to return to school after the summer holidays, in the sacred holiday month of August.

The government has rewritten the school calendar so that teachers have to be back on August 29. Bearing in mind August is traditionally the month when the whole country pretty much shuts down and everyone goes to the beach, the move has not gone down well with in staff rooms.

Switzerland next and more hard times immigration politics from TheLocal.ch:

Immigration: ‘total chaos’ seen if curbs backed

Switzerland’s ties with the European Union face a crunch test on Sunday as voters decide whether to revive immigration quotas on EU citizens, in a referendum piloted by rightwing populists.

The result could be close, with the latest poll indicating 43 percent back the “Stop Mass Immigration” proposal and 50 percent oppose it.

Switzerland is not in the EU but is ringed by members of the 28-nation bloc, which is its main export market. If passed, the proposal would bind the government to renegotiate within three years a deal which gives the EU’s 500 million residents equal footing on the job market in this nation of 8.1 million people.

Opponents of the plan — the government, most political parties and the business sector — warn that ripping up free labour market rules for EU nationals in force since 2007 would unravel related economic deals.

Another consequence of the battle for women’s bodies from El País:

Doctors shun life-saving abortion

  • As 32-year-old Daniela found out, access to the procedure at a public hospital can be impossible
  • The government is planning to make the law covering terminations even tougher

La Paz Hospital, one of the largest public health centers in Madrid, refused to perform an abortion on Daniela, a 32-year-old woman who had lost all her amniotic fluid when she was 20 weeks pregnant. In these conditions, a fetus no longer has a chance to live, according to all the specialists consulted by this newspaper, and the mother is at risk of serious infection.

Even though she met all the requirements set out in the current abortion law – which the Popular Party government plans to toughen up on – the Madrid hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy. Eventually, Daniela, who was on intravenous antibiotics to prevent infections, was discharged from La Paz so she could go to a private center for her abortion, after the regional government confirmed her right to one.

A spokeswoman at La Paz said that all the doctors there are conscientious objectors – whose rights are enshrined in the current Spanish law on abortion – and that in 2010 the gynecology department in full decided not to carry out any abortions, ever.

thinkSPAIN charts the loss:

Salaries have fallen by 10 per cent since labour reform came into effect, say recruitment centres

  • Mass redundancies falling, but on-the-job training is a must, according to Adecco

WAGES have gone down by an average of 10 per cent, and the typical redundancy pay-off to 26 days’ salary per year of service, according to research by three recruitment agencies.

Adecco, the Sagardoy Foundation and the Excellence in Sustainability Club – which all form the official Observatory for monitoring the government’s labour reform – studied 200 companies, most of which have a minimum of 50 employees.

They say redundancy pay has gone down, but remains on the whole higher than the requisite 20 days’ salary per year of service which is the legal minimum for a ‘fair dismissal’.

TheLocal.es has poor possibilities:

Half of Spain’s job ads pay less than €1K/month

The so-called ‘mileurismo’ phenomenon continues to grow as data from employment portal jobandtalent.com reveals that 49 per cent of jobs offered in Spain in January had net salaries equivalent to less than €1,000 ($1,350) per month.

Information published in the company’s blog showed that jobs in the ‘mileurismo’ category – those that pay less than €1,000 a month – had risen from 30 per cent  to 49 per cent of those on offer.

Of those, positions offering gross annual salaries of under €15,000 rose from 20 per cent to 31 per cent of the total, and jobs offering €16,000 to €20,000  from 6 per cent to 18 per cent.

The blog presented the figures as a complement to data released this week by the Juan Alfaro Club of Excellence’s Labour Reform Monitor which showed that average wages across Spain had fallen by 10% since the introduction of new legislation designed to introduce flexibility into the job market.

But one number is heading up. From TheLocal.es:

Spanish bankruptcies hit the roof in 2013

The number of household and business bankruptcy filings leapt by 6.5 percent to 9,660, the National Statistics Institute said, as the economy emerged from a long recession.

Spain’s economy grew slowly in the second half of 2013, shaking off a double-dip recession but still weighed down by a 26-percent unemployment rate.

The eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is still overshadowed by the aftermath of a decade-long property bubble, which collapsed in 2008 destroying millions of jobs and flooding the nation in debt.

In a sign that the business sector’s decline may be steadying, however, bankruptcy filings rose at a slower pace last year when compared to a 15.1 percent increase in 2011 and a 32.2 percent surge in 2012. But the number of bankruptcy filings remains at historically high levels.

And battle over women’s bodies ends the same way, via thinkSPAIN:

Surrogate births not recognised under Spanish law, rules Supreme Court

CHILDREN born to surrogate mothers cannot be registered as the legal offspring of the parents who commissioned the woman who gave birth, Spain’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Whilst in the USA, couples who cannot have children or all-male couples can ‘rent a womb’ to enable them to start a family and register the baby as their own, Spanish law does not recognise the procedure, as two men discovered when they attempted to do so with their two children born in California.

The couple, who are married, had all the legal certificates issued by the county of San Diego, California to prove they were the legal fathers of the twin boys born in 2008 via a surrogate mother, in accordance with US law.

Italy next and another number of the way up from TheLocal.it:

Rents in Italy soar as wages stagnate

Italians are spending the bulk of their monthly salary on rent as prices climb and landlords refuse to negotiate even in times of job loss, a survey has revealed.

Over 40 percent of those surveyed by mioaffito.it, the Italian property website, said between 35 and 50 percent of their salary goes on rent, while 30 percent said they spend even more.

Rents in Italy have risen by 105 percent over the last twenty years, while average household salaries have gone up by just 18 percent, Gaia Merguicci, a community manager at mioaffito.it told The Local.

The average monthly rent in Italy is around €780, up from €738 since last August, according to data from the website. Florence saw the steepest climb over the past six months, with rents increasing by 14.2 percent.

However, the most expensive place to rent is the business hub of Milan, where the monthly average is €1,823 followed by Rome at €1,629 and Florence at €1,228. The cheapest place is Ragusa, in Sicily, where rents average €390.

The latest Bunga Bunga blowback from TheLocal.it:

Italian senate to join civil case against Berlusconi

The speaker of Italy’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday announced the Senate would declare itself a civil party in a trial against former premier Silvio Berlusconi for allegedly bribing senators, according to Italian media reports.

Speaker Piero Grasso said said it was his “moral duty” to declare the Senate a civil party despite an earlier recommendation by a parliamentary
committee for the upper house to stay out of the media magnate’s latest legal troubles.

Embattled Berlusconi was ousted from parliament and stripped of legal protection in November after he was found guilty of tax fraud.

TheLocal.it once again, and a heads up for the big winners:

Bonino defends German role in euro crisis

Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino on Thursday defended Germany against charges its austerity demands were the cause of suffering in the crisis-hit eurozone.

“Those who hold Germany responsible for everything are not only telling an untruth but also behaving unfairly,” Bonino told Munich daily the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

“I find this criticism of Berlin quite petty and only partially appropriate,” said Bonino, a former EU commissioner.

After the jump, the latest in the ongoing Greek disaster, Ukrainian warnings, drought and a protest victory in Latin America, Australian and Japanese tapering, Thai troubles, Chinese anxieties, Sony woes, a free-trade-for-dolphins ploy, U.S. and European GMO word wars, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

David Horsey: A little California dry humor


From the editorial cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times:

BLOG Californicated

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoSinoFuku


Our compendium of entries form the political, economic, and environmental realms opens with a spine-chiller from The Independent:

Scientists talk of ‘pandemic potential’ after first confirmed human death from new strain of bird flu

Chinese scientists have said the “pandemic potential” of a new strain of bird flu “should not be underestimated” after the first known human infection resulted in the death of an elderly woman.

The new strain is a variant of a virus known as H10N8, which scientists believe may have originated in wild birds, and later spread to poultry.

The victim, a 73-year-old woman from Nanchang City in south-eastern China, was the first person confirmed to have been infected with the new type, and a second case has since been discovered, raising concerns that the virus has evolved so that it can transfer easily from birds to humans.

Its emergence coincides with a surge in the number of cases of another bird flu strain, H7N9, which is known to have infected 286 people since March last year, causing 60 deaths. The vast majority of cases have occurred in China, but Taiwan has also recorded two infections, and the virus is known to have spread to Hong Kong, which has seen four cases.

Latter-day gladiatorial gaming and another sign of our cultural plight from BuzzFeed:

George Zimmerman Reportedly Set To Fight Rapper DMX

  • The man who was found not guilty of murder in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin will fight the rapper who promised to “f**k him right up,” according to TMZ. The fight promoter backtracked from announcing the fight on Trayvon’s birthday.

From The Guardian, costly folly:

Fracking is depleting water supplies in America’s driest areas, report shows

  • From Texas to California, drilling for oil and gas is using billions of gallons of water in the country’s most drought-prone areas

America’s oil and gas rush is depleting water supplies in the driest and most drought-prone areas of the country, from Texas to California, new research has found.

Of the nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2011, three-quarters were located in areas where water is scarce, and 55% were in areas experiencing drought, the report by the Ceres investor network found.

Fracking those wells used 97bn gallons of water, raising new concerns about unforeseen costs of America’s energy rush.

“Hydraulic fracturing is increasing competitive pressures for water in some of the country’s most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the Ceres green investors’ network.

Just how bad is California’s drought? Consider the following from Bloomberg News:

BLOG Drought

From the Washington Post, stiffing the Praetorians:

CBO: Military pension payments to fall 5 percent by 2023 with cut

A controversial new pension cut for younger military retirees will help reduce the projected payments for those retirement benefits by about 5 percent by 2023, according to congressional number crunchers.

Estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, released Tuesday, show that federal spending on military retirement benefits will rise from $51.5 billion this year to $64.3 billion in 2023.

The change is at least partly due to a provision in the budget bill Congress and President Obama approved in December that reduces cost-of-living allowances for working-age military retirees by 1 percent starting next year. A higher rate will apply once those individuals reach age 62, and the plan does not affect disabled retirees.

The Register delivers the blow:

First Dell, now IBM: 15,000 jobs face the axe at Big Blue, says union

  • ‘Workforce rebalancing’ will take place in the first quarter

IBM is set to spend another $1bn on job cuts this year to eliminate an estimated 15,000 jobs worldwide, according to trade union Alliance@IBM.

The company has already spent the same amount of money last year on ‘workforce rebalancing’, its euphemism for redundancies.

Big Blue’s chief financial officer for finance and enterprise transformation, Martin Schroeter, has admitted there would be more cuts in 2014, during the announcement of IBM’s fourth quarter earnings last month.

And on a cultural front, this from a Carl Hiaasen headline in the Miami Herald:

Dr. Cheech called — your prescription is ready!

Medical marijuana will be on the Florida ballot in November, which is bad news for Gov. Rick Scott and other Republican leaders who oppose any relaxation of the state’s backward cannabis laws.

They say medical use of weed is the first step toward Colorado-style legalization, and they might be right. They say that although the proposed constitutional amendment names only nine diseases, lots of people who aren’t really sick will find a way to get marijuana from certain doctors.

That’s probably true, too. This, after all, is the state that made pill mills a roadside tourist attraction. Who can doubt that future pot prescriptions will bear the signatures of a Dr. Cheech or a Dr. Chong?

A parallel development from the Washington Post:

D.C. Council weakens bill to decriminalize marijuana, keeps smoking in public a crime

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of marijuana but left smoking it in public a crime, keeping alive concerns about racial profiling in pot arrests in the District.

With an 11 to 1 vote, several council members reversed their previous support for a more far-reaching measure, weakening an effort to join the quarter of U.S. states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.

While they stuck with their plans to drop possession to a civil offense — akin to a parking ticket — council members decided not to decriminalize public smoking. They did, however, reduce the maximum jail sentence from six months to 60 days.

North of the border to another bubble expanding from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Toronto home prices surge, again ‘outpacing family incomes’

Toronto home sales edged down in the bitter chill of January, but prices surged, again throwing up red flags.

Sales fell 2.2 per cent from a year earlier to 4,135 as new listings plunged 16.6 per cent, the Toronto Real Estate Board said Wednesday.

The average selling price, in turn, surged more than 9 per cent to $526,528. The so-called benchmark price climbed 7.1 per cent from a year earlier.

On to a story with a global focus from Al Jazeera America:

UN demands action from Vatican on child sex abuse

  • A scathing report urges the Catholic Church to ‘immediately remove’ clergy suspected of child abuse

The United Nations on Wednesday demanded that the Vatican “immediately remove” all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers and turn them over to civil authorities, in an unprecedented and scathing report that the Holy See’s ambassador to the U.N. promptly denounced.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child also urged the Vatican to hand over its archives on sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children so that culprits, as well as “those who concealed their crimes,” could be held accountable.

The watchdog’s blunt paper — the most far-reaching critique of the church hierarchy by the world body — followed its public grilling of Vatican officials last month. The U.N. report blasted the “code of silence” that has long been used to keep victims quiet, saying the Holy See had “systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.”

And on to Europe with a warning from the London Telegraph:

Insular ECB is playing dangerous game of chicken with deflationary world forces

  • An aborted recovery at this point might be more than democratic societies can tolerate

The US and China are withdrawing stimulus on purpose. The eurozone is doing so by accident, letting market forces drain liquidity from the financial system for month after month.

The balance sheet of the European Central Bank has fallen by €553bn over the past year as banks repay money that they no longer want, either because ECB funds are too costly in a near-deflationary world or because lenders are being compelled by regulators to shrink their books.

This is “passive tightening” or “endogenous tapering”. The ECB balance sheet has plummeted to 23pc of eurozone GDP from a peak of 32pc in July 2012.

BBC News takes a fall [and the subject of our Chart of the day]:

Eurozone retail sales fall sharply in December

Retail sales in the eurozone fell sharply over the Christmas period, with their biggest monthly fall in two-and-a-half years.

December’s sales fell by 1% compared to the same time a year ago, and by 1.6% compared to November. Both figures were much worse than analysts expected.

The drop in consumer demand followed a surprise fall in eurozone inflation to 0.7% in January.

The figure prompted concerns about deflation in the 17-nation bloc.

On to Britain with qualified optimism from Sky News:

Economic Recovery: ‘End In Sight’ For Austerity

  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the pain of cuts will soon start to ease but warns the recovery is “horribly imbalanced”.

Austerity plans put in place by the coalition may already go further than is needed in order to balance the Government’s books, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says.

In its closely watched Green Budget, the Government-spending think tank said that even if the most pessimistic forecasters are proved right on the economy, the coalition’s fiscal plans will repair the damage done to the public finances by the Great Recession.

The verdict is among the most positive yet delivered by the IFS – although it warned that there remains some uncertainty over whether it will be easy to implement the cuts planned for the coming years, since only 40% of them had been carried out.

An alarm from The London Telegraph:

NHS faces ‘unprecedented squeeze’, think tank warns

  • Ageing and growing population means spending per patient will fall by 9 per cent, despite pledge to ring-fence budgets, IFS warns

NHS faces an “unprecedented squeeze” over the next five years under the burden of an ageing population, a leading think tank has warned, while George Osborne’s cuts are not yet half way done.

Spending on each patient is set to fall by over 9 per cent over a decade, despite an “expensive and generous” ring fence around health service budgets, as the British population gets bigger and older.

The protection given to NHS and aid budgets and a series of new pre-election giveaways by David Cameron and Nick Clegg means George Osborne faces an uphill battle to balance the books by 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its annual Green Budget.

The Tories have pledged to spare the health service from the cuts of up to 30 per cent that have hit other departments.

Sky News saves face:

Aidan Burley: MP Resigns Over Nazi Stag Party

  • Aidan Burley announces he will quit Parliament at the 2015 general election after he was slammed for organising the party.

The Conservative politician was sacked as a ministerial aide when reports of the episode emerged in 2011, and an internal party inquiry last month found he was “stupid and offensive” to have organised the party.

Groom Mark Fournier was fined €1,500 (£1,250) by a French court for wearing an SS uniform and insignia supplied by the MP. Mr Burley was his best man.

On to Ireland and Banksters Behaving Badly from the Irish Times:

Anglo directors knew about ‘absolutely illegal’ share-buying scheme, trial told

  • Prosecution says FitzPatrick did nothing to stop bank shares move

Three former Anglo Irish Bank directors were aware of a “choreographed” and “absolutely illegal” scheme to fund the buying of shares in the bank, the jury was told on the opening day of the bankers’ trial yesterday.

Seán FitzPatrick (65), William McAteer (63) and Pat Whelan (51) are accused of providing unlawful financial assistance to members of businessman Seán Quinn’s family and the so-called Maple 10, a trusted group of Anglo borrowers, to buy shares in Anglo in July 2008.

The prosecution says the transaction was designed to create the public perception of stability in the bank’s share price.

TheLocal.no laughs at Uncle Sam:

US committee approves blundering Norway envoy

The US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee has approved George Tsunis as the next ambassador of Norway, despite his catastrophic appointment hearing last month, and despite a warning from John McCain, its most prominent member, that he had already become “a mockery”.

McCain argued against the nomination during the meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, which went on to approve Tsunis by a majority of 12 to six.

“The question is whether . . . [Tsunis] will embarrass the United States of America while serving as our representative,” McCain said.

He reminded the committee’s members that Tsunis had referred to “the president” of Norway in his January 16 hearing and attacked the anti-immigration Progress Party, which has seven ministers in government, as “fringe elements” that “spew their hatred”.

Switzerland next and an embarrassment from TheLocal.ch:

Minister faces questions over Luxembourg links

Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann came under renewed scrutiny on Wednesday following revelations in the media that his family company used a subsidiary in Luxembourg to evade taxes in Switzerland.

Schneider-Ammann headed Ammann, a construction equipment company, until he was elected to the federal government in 2010 as a member of the centre-right Liberal party.

Der Bund and Tages Anzeiger reported on Wednesday that Ammann used a Luxembourg-based firm, Manilux SA, as a private bank for the company, providing lines of credit for its international operations.

And TheLocal.ch, this time with nominative culture clash:

Bern tells parents: Jessico not a boy’s name

A young couple in the canton of Bern have been ordered to change the name of their newborn son because it is too feminine, according to media reports.

Alain and Miriam Flaig, from the town of Huttwil, named the child Jessico after he was born last Wednesday at the Lagenthal maternity hospital, Blick newspaper reported.

The child was born in 15 minutes and the couple picked out his name. But the following day, problems arose, Blick reported. In a letter, the authorities from Oberaarggau sent a letter objecting to the selection.

“As a first name for your son you have written Jessico on the birth form,” the letter said, according to Blick. “According to the information at our disposal, Jessico is defined as a female first name.”

As a result, the Bern authorities have refused to register the name.

France next, and the politics of history with TheLocal.fr:

SNCF faces ban in US over Holocaust role

France’s state-owned rail company SNCF faces the prospect of being barred from bidding for a €4.4 billion project in the US because of its role in transporting Jews to concentration camps during World War Two.

American lawmakers in the state of Maryland have proposed a bill that could prevent SNCF from bidding for public projects on that side of the Atlantic until it makes restitution payments for its role in taking Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Two democrat lawmakers want compensation to be paid to Holocaust survivors and their families before rail company Keolis, which is majority-owned by SNCF, can bid for a €4.4 billion, 35-year contract, to build and operate a 16 km light rail project.

“The persistent refusal of SNCF to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust remains an insult for its victims,” sponsoring Sen. Joan Carter Conway told French daily Le Monde.

Spain next, and a pox on both their houses from El País:

PP and PSOE lose ground in latest CIS survey

  • UPyD gathers support while citizens are most concerned by unemployment and corruption

The results from the latest survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Studies (CIS) make grim reading for the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE), to the extent that the main opposition party has accused the state-funded body of cooking the results, despite a drop in voter support for the government.

The last study, in October 2013, reported 34 percent of Spaniards would vote for the PP in a general election, a figure that fell to 32.1 percent in the latest survey. The PSOE also lost ground and would receive the backing of 26.6 percent of the country, a loss of two percentage points. The United Left (IU) remained steady at 11.3 percent while the UPyD’s support rose from 7.7 percent to 9.2 percent.

The study, conducted between January 3 and 15, shows that unemployment remains the principle concern for 78.5 percent of Spanish citizens, up from 53.4 percent in October. In second place was corruption, up from 37.6 percent to 39.5 percent, with a raft of investigations into the PP, the PSOE, labor unions and the royal family dominating the headlines. However, just 0.6 percent of respondents said the monarchy was a source of concern.

TheLocal.es adds a monkey wrench to the mix:

Police reveal extent of bribes to ruling party

Spanish police investigating one of the country’s biggest ever corruption scandals have released a list of ‘gifts’ including plasma TVs, Cuban cigars and Mont Blanc pens allegedly given to top Popular Party officials to curry favour in return for public contracts.

The Economic and Fiscal Crimes Unit (UDEF) presented the details to the courts on Tuesday as part of the ongoing investigation into the complicated Gürtel affair, in which senior members of the government are alleged to have received presents and cash backhanders in return for public contracts.

The Gürtel leader, Francisco Correa, is said to have given politicians ‘presents’ including Habana cigars (€450); a Mont Blanc Pen; €6,000 of plasma TVs; smartphones; €500 crates of wine; trips to DisneyLand; holidays to Cancún, New York, Kenya and Mauritius; and luxury hotel accommodation worth over €1,000 per night.

With total employment at a record low, one sector gains with El País:

Spanish services sector grows at fastest pace in over six years

  • Companies increase staffing levels for first time in 70 months

Spain’s services sector, which accounts for over half of GDP, saw the fastest growth in activity in the first month of the year since July 2007, cementing expectations of a recovery in the economy this year, according to a survey released Wednesday by consultant Markit.

Companies in the sector also increased their staffing levels slightly in January, ending a run of 70 consecutive months of job cutting.

Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) climbed from 54.2 points in December to 54.9 points in the first month of 2014, marking the third successive month in which the index stood above the 50-point mark that denotes expansion. The increase in the month was also the strongest since before the current crisis took hold around the start of 2008.

Across the peninsula for a Lisbon demand from the Portugal News:

Country must pay off debt, not seek to restructure it – PM

Portugal’s prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, said on Wednesday that after the country exits the adjustment programme linked to its current euro-zone bailout, it must start accumulating budget surpluses so as to reduce its debt burden, rather than seeking to restructure it.

“What we want is not to restructure the Portuguese debt, what we want is to pay it, creating conditions for our economy to grow, but also managing our public finances in such as way as to free up surpluses that, essentially, can free up the economy itself, companies, citizen, families from the weight that this debt today imposes on us,” he said. For that reason, he went on, society in general must “project for this post-troika [period] a very great determination and a very great will.”

The prime minister was speaking at an event in Lisbon to launch a ‘Coalition for Green Growth’, an entity created by the Ministry of Environment and which brings together organisations from various sectors.

Passos Coelho dedicated much of his speech to the subject of the ratio of debt to gross domestic product: the higher this is, he said, the greater the upward pressure that financial markets exercise on Portugal’s sovereign bond yields.

Off to Italy and pricing the commons with The Guardian:

Italy threatens to sue Standard & Poor’s for failing to value its history and art

  • Ratings agency would not have issued damaging downgrade if it had taken account of cultural wealth, state auditor claims

Italy is threatening to sue the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s for failing to value its historical and cultural treasures.

The country that bequeathed the world Dante, da Vinci and an enviable vision of La Dolce Vita, thinks financial analysts would not have issued a damaging credit downgrade against Italy if they had paid more attention to its cultural wealth than its spiralling budget deficit.

According to the Financial Times, Italy’s auditor general, the corte dei conti, believes that S&P may have acted illegally and could be sued for €234bn (£194bn).

TheLocal.it takes Bunga Bunga on the road:

‘Berlusconi for PM’ campervan tours Italy

Supporters of Silvio Berlusconi’s party Go Italy (Forza Italia) have set out on a campervan tour as part of a campaign calling for the former prime minister’s daughter, Marina Berlusconi, to become a candidate for the Italian premiership.

The campervan, branded with photographs of Silvio and his Marina Berlusconi, a 47-year-old business executive, is the brainchild of Gabriele Elia and fellow fans from the town of Cellino San Marco in south-east Italy.

Twenty years after Silvio Berlusconi first founded his political party, Elia has set out on his tour of Italy under the banner “the liberal dream continues”.

He has already toured the heel of Italy’s boot and driven the length of the country to reach Arcora, the home of Silvio Berlusconi’s mansion made infamous for erotic “bunga bunga” parties hosted by the billionaire.

From TheLocal.it, lost tolerance:

Italian MP laments ‘massive’ refugee influx

The number of refugees landing in Italy rose tenfold in January, the country’s deputy interior minister said on Tuesday, complaining of an “incessant and massive influx of migrants”.

January 2014 saw a total of 2,156 migrants in Italy, compared to 217 the previous year, the official added.

“In 2013, Italy was subjected to an incessant and massive influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East,” Filippo Bubbico told parliament.

Throughout the whole of 2013, a total of 2,925 vessels of various shapes and sizes landed on Italian shores, carrying about 43,000 people, including nearly 4,000 children.

After the jump, the Greek meltdown flares up, failing family finances in Cyprus, a Russian warning on the Ukraine, a Brazilian financial alarm, Thai troubles, Chinese warning signs, Japanese aging and income woes, a GMO victory, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Chart of the day II: California groundwater losses


From a new UCCHM Water Advistory [PDF] from the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine, estimating cumulative 51-year cumulative groundwater losses in the irrigated agricultural heartland of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins:

Microsoft Word - UCCHM_Water_Advisory_1.docx

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoSinoFuku


Our compendium of headlines from the world of human economic and political actions and their impacts on our environment opens with a health alert from The Guardian:

Worldwide cancer cases expected to soar by 70% over next 20 years

  • New cancer cases expected to grow from 14m a year in 2012 to 25m, with biggest burden in low- and middle-income countries

Cancer cases worldwide are predicted to increase by 70% over the next two decades, from 14m in 2012 to 25m new cases a year, according to the World Health Organisation.

The latest World Cancer Report says it is implausible to think we can treat our way out of the disease and that the focus must now be on preventing new cases. Even the richest countries will struggle to cope with the spiralling costs of treatment and care for patients, and the lower income countries, where numbers are expected to be highest, are ill-equipped for the burden to come.

The incidence of cancer globally has increased in just four years from 12.7m in 2008 to 14.1m new cases in 2012, when there were 8.2m deaths. Over the next 20 years, it is expected to hit 25m a year – a 70% increase.

Closer to Casa esnl, the latest coverage of class war in Babylon by the Bay from USA TODAY:

SF residents caught in middle of tech hostilities

For the past month, protesters have confronted buses that transport employees from Google, Apple and Facebook to Silicon Valley. The flare-ups highlight the yawning gap between those benefiting from the enormous wealth generated by the tech boom and those left behind. Multimillion-dollar tax breaks for SF-based companies like Twitter have stoked rebellious tensions.

“We have a group which is mostly young and has not learned social norms or responsibility gaining wealth and power,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a Fellow at Stanford Law School. “This group has its own value system and lives in its own bubble. It is displacing the larger population of San Francisco.”

The city has had its neighborhood battles – hippies in the Haight in the 1960s, gays in the Castro in the ‘70s. But the latest gentrification clash is moving faster, making the current situation dicey.

The Verge Googles eyesore:

California orders Google to move floating barge from current construction site

The state of California has ordered Google to move its massive floating barge away from its current construction site in the San Francisco Bay. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission executive director Larry Goldzband said the four-story structure has drawn numerous complaints. “It needs to move,” Goldzband said. He also claims that Google never had the proper permits to start work on the project at Treasure Island. But today’s development may not spell any real trouble for Google — the company simply needs to relocate the barge to another Bay facility where construction is fully permitted. The news was first reported by the Associated Press.

Sightings of the barge led to rampant speculation about its purpose last year. Google eventually admitted ownership of the San Francisco barge, teasing that it hopes to explore using it as a space where “people can learn about new technology.” We reached out to the company for more details on how it plans to respond to this latest challenge. In a statement, a Google spokesperson told The Verge, “We just received the letter from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and we are reviewing it.”

From Bloomberg, the usual suspects operating in the usual way:

IBM Uses Dutch Tax Haven to Boost Profits as Sales Slide

International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) has reduced its tax rate to a two-decade low with help from a tax strategy that sends profits through a Dutch subsidiary.

The approach, which involves routing almost all sales in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and some of the Americas through the Netherlands unit, helped IBM as it gradually reduced its tax rate over 20 years at the same time pretax income quadrupled. Then last year, the rate slid to the lowest level since at least 1994, lifting earnings above analysts’ estimates.

IBM is aiming for $20 a share in adjusted earnings by 2015, up from $11.67 in 2010 — a goal made more difficult as the company posted seven straight quarters of declining revenue. To stay on target, IBM has bought back shares, sold assets, and fired and furloughed workers. A less prominent though vital role is played by its subsidiary in the Netherlands, one of the most important havens for multinational companies looking for ways to legally reduce their tax rates.

MarketWatch tanks anxiously:

U.S. stocks see worst selloff in several months

  • Manufacturers expand in January at slowest rate in eight months

The U.S. stock market closed with sharp losses on Monday, after a much weaker-than-expected reading on manufacturing data as well as concerns over a slowdown in China, triggered the worst selloff in several months.

The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day with the steepest decline since June 20.

U.S. manufacturers expanded in January at the slowest rate in eight months as the pace of new orders sharply decelerated, according to the closely followed ISM index. The Institute for Supply Management index sank to 51.3% from 56.5% in December. That’s the lowest level since last May. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had expected the index to drop to 56%

From the New York Times, a belated recognition:

The Middle Class Is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World.

As politicians and pundits in Washington continue to spar over whether economic inequality is in fact deepening, in corporate America there really is no debate at all. The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.

If there is any doubt, the speed at which companies are adapting to the new consumer landscape serves as very convincing evidence. Within top consulting firms and among Wall Street analysts, the shift is being described with a frankness more often associated with left-wing academics than business experts.

The Washington Post notes a sea change:

Report: Majority of U.S. kids under age 2 are now children of color

For the first time, a majority of American children under age 2 are now children of color  — and 1 in 3 of them is poor, according to a disturbing new report. “The State of America’s Children 2014.” that cites the neglect of  children as the top national security threat.

The report, published by the Children’s Defense Fund, calls on President Obama and America’s political leaders “in every party at every level to mount a long overdue, unwavering, and persistent war to prevent and eliminate child poverty.”

From the Project On Government Oversight, why the hell not?:

Could Post Offices Become Public Banks?

The U.S. Postal Service is floundering—2013 was the seventh year in a row to report a net loss, at a whopping $5 billion—and  nobody is quite sure how to fix it. Go Private? Close branches? Deliver Mail only four days a week? Ideas are being thrown around but little progress has been made in improving the troubled agency.

But last week, the office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service released a report with an out-of-the-box suggestion that would produce $8.9 billion in new annual profits: Turning the Post Office into a bank, with savings accounts, loans and debit cards. Furthermore, it would greatly benefit the poor, who lack banking options and are often gouged by predatory financial services.

The idea has been floated before but with official backing from the Inspector General it has a higher degree of credibility and plausibility. Add in the fact that it wouldn’t require Congressional approval, only an executive order from the President, and maybe the out-there proposal could actually become a reality.

Still think the idea sounds crazy? Consider this: The Post Office already was a bank. From 1911-1967, savings accounts were offered with 2 percent interest, ending because of competition from private banks with higher interest rates. The post office still provides money orders.

From Medical Daily, a notable side effect:

Medical Marijuana Cuts Suicide Rates By 10% In Years Following Legalization

Legalization of medical marijuana has been found to correlate to a significant drop in suicide rates, providing additional evidence that the federally outlawed substance may have a positive effect on U.S. public health.

The new study, which is published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows that the suicide rate among men ages 20 to 29 and 30 to 39 fell by 10.8 percent and 9.8 percent respectively following a given state’s decision to legalize medical marijuana. Although the relationship was weaker and less precise among women, the authors believe that the findings provide strong evidence in favor of medical cannabis. “The negative relationship between legalization and suicides among young men is consistent with the hypothesis that marijuana can be used to cope with stressful life events,” they wrote.

On to Europe with an anxious twist from CNNMoney:

Pressure building for ECB rate cut

Another interest rate cut in Europe could be just around the corner as the risk of deflation rears its ugly head again.

The first official estimate of eurozone inflation in January was a weaker-than-expected 0.7% — the same level that prompted the European Central Bank to cut rates in November. Consumer prices rose by 0.8% in December.

The weaker January number “puts significant pressure on the ECB to take further stimulative action at its February policy meeting next Thursday,” said IHS Insight’s chief European economist Howard Archer.

Cheaper energy was largely to blame, but the stronger euro has also been pulling import prices down, economists said.

Quartz covers mordida:

Lithuanians and Romanians are more than six times as likely to be asked for bribes than the EU average

A fifth of Danes think corruption is prevalent, for example (the lowest level in the EU), but only 3% say they are personally affected by it in their daily lives. Some 12% claim they know someone who has taken a bribe, but only 1% say they have paid, or been expected to pay, a bribe themselves.

In much of western Europe, then, it seems that corruption is a somewhat abstract concept for the common person—confined to criminal cliques or a select few who abuse their positions of power (Danes reckon politicians are the most corrupt group in their country). But as you travel to the south and east, corruption appears to creep into one’s daily life, a depressingly routine feature of doing business or accessing public services. In the past 12 months, around one in three Lithuanians and one in four Romanians say they were asked or expected to pay a bribe; the EU average is less than one in 20.

Al Jazeera America sets the cost:

Report: EU corruption costs $162B annually

  • All 28 member states suffer from some level of corruption, the report found

Corruption affects all member countries of the European Union and costs the bloc’s economies about 120 billion euros ($162.19 billion) a year, an official EU report published Monday said.

European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who presided over the first-ever official EU-wide study on corruption, said the estimated amount lost annually due to padded government contracts, covert political financing, bribes to secure health care and other corrupt practices would be enough to fund the European Union’s yearly operating budget.

All 28 EU member states suffer from some level of corruption — defined broadly by the report as the “abuse of power for private gain” — the report found.

One more headline [only], from BBC News:

Corruption across EU ‘breathtaking’ – EU Commission

On to Britain and a call for caution from Deutsche Welle:

Steinmeier urges UK to stay in EU, voices doubt on treaty change

  • Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has appealed to the UK to remain in the European Union, regardless of progress on the EU treaty change sought by Britain’s Conservative-led government.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier made his first visit to London since returning to the foreign minister’s post on Monday, asking his British counterpart William Hague not to lose sight of the benefits of EU membership.

“In this 21st century world, we want to protect our political, economic and cultural influences,” Steinmeier said, adding that, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, such European ties “really must not be underestimated.”

The German foreign minister said it would be “an exaggeration” to assert that Germany and the UK were on precisely the same page when it came to treaty reform for the EU.

Xinhua sounds the alarm:

London housing market under price bubbles risk, warns Ernst and Young

Housing market in London is beginning to show signs of bubble-like conditions, said a research report issued by Ernst and Young Item Club (EY ITEM Club) on Monday, while asking the government to monitor the trend closely and be prepared to intervene.

The EY ITEM Club forecast showed the average house price in London is expected to reach nearly 600,000 pounds (980,000 U.S. dollars) by 2018, some 3.5 times the average price in Northern Ireland and more than 3.3 times the average in the North East.

It said the average house prices in Britain growing by 8.4 percent this year and 7.3 percent in 2015, before cooling to around 5.5 percent in 2016.

And simultaneously booms:

British manufacturing off to strong start in 2014

Britain’s manufacturing sector maintained its strong growth into 2014, posing an improved domestic demand and solid output growth supported by rising export orders in January, said a survey report on Monday.

The report, jointly issued by Markit and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS), showed the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) for the British manufacturing sector was at 56.7 in January of this year.

The figure is at its lowest level in three months, but still showed a robust improvement in overall operating conditions for the manufacturing sector.

A reading of 50 points or greater indicates expansion, while below 50 indicates contraction.

A qualified UK separatism endorsement from El País:

Spain will not oppose Scottish EU entry: foreign minister

  • But García-Margallo warns that re-entry to the Union will take considerable time

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has stated that should Scotland elect to break away from the United Kingdom, Spain will not oppose the move because it does not have any bearing on the internal affairs of the country. “If the Constitution of the United Kingdom permits – and it seems that it does – that Scotland call a referendum on their possible independence, we will say nothing on the matter,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

However, the minister adhered to the Popular Party (PP) administration’s line over Catalonia’s own designs on a referendum for independence; one of staunch resistance.

On to Sweden and a call from TheLocal.se:

EU: Sweden should ban secret party donations

While the EU’s executive body acknowledged that Sweden was among the least corrupt countries in the EU, it pointed to several areas of potential improvement.

Specifically, Sweden could improve its transparency if it considered a general ban on anonymous political party donations. Sweden remains one of few EU countries without total party-funding transparency, and the government came under fire last month when it decided to keep the lid on private donations.

The report also hinted that Sweden could do more to combat the risk of corruption at the municipality and county level, which the commission said could be fixed by making authorities obliged to secure transparency in public contracts with private entrepreneurs.

TheLocal.se again, with hard times intolerance:

Afrophobic hate crimes on the rise in Sweden

Hate crimes directed against Sweden’s black population have increased in recent years, according to a report published on Monday, prompting grave concern from Sweden’s integration minister.

Afrophobia, defined as hostility towards people with a background from sub-Saharan Africa, is soaring in Sweden, according to the researchers who compiled the government-commissioned report. They wrote on Monday in the opinion pages of the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (DN) that it was time society took these statistics seriously.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of reported hate crimes against Afro-Swedes, defined as anyone with African heritage living in Sweden, rose by 24 percent, while hate crimes in general during the same period decreased by six percent. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, the number of Afrophobic hate crimes rose by 17 percent, the researchers explained.

On to Brussels and a critique via DutchNews.nl:

Brussels criticises ‘revolving door’ between Dutch politics and industry

While the Dutch integrated approach to preventing corruption and bribery could serve as a model to other EU countries, the Netherlands should still do more to improve transparency in politics, the European Commission said on Monday.

While welcoming the fact that much has been done in the Netherlands to improve transparency, the Commission went on to recommend improvements in the way the business interests of ministers are examined.

Officials’ private, financial and business interests are considered a private matter and information about their assets and interests is not available to the public, the report points out.

Nor are there any rules forcing MPs to declare potential conflicts of interest or barring them from holding financial interests or engaging in external activities.

Germany next and a peculiar call from TheLocal.de:

Industry boss: ‘Too many students harm economy’

One of Germany’s top commerce experts warned on Monday that there were so many young people at university, and so few in traineeships, that the country’s economy would suffer.

“The consequences to Germany’s economy will be damaging, if the trend to study at any cost is not stopped,” said Eric Schweitzer, president of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK).

Schweitzer was referring to the amount of young people who undertake lengthy study in Germany, while companies struggled to fill traineeships.

“The truth is that many years of increasing student numbers in Germany have resulted in our classrooms now bursting at the seams, while companies are desperately seeking apprentices,” he said in a statement.

France next and a concession to the “family values” set from TheLocal.fr:

Hollande puts off family law to avoid new fight

A day after massive protests over President François Hollande’s “family phobia”, his government on Monday abruptly postponed plans to pass a controversial new family bill, that would likely have picked another fight with France’s traditional conservatives.

France’s Socialist government on Monday put off plans for a new family law after demonstrations by thousands of angry conservatives.

Hollande’s administration announced on Monday it was postponing its plans to move ahead with legislation that would have legalized medically assisted procreation for same sex couples, and tackled issues like surrogacy.

A source in Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s office said the government would no longer present a bill this year that officials had said was aimed at modernising the law to reflect the new “diversity” of families.

Nature’s newsblog takes the pledge:

Hollande pledges to avoid cuts to France’s science funding

French President François Hollande promised to spare the research and higher education budget from savings of €50 billion (US$67 billion) that his government has pledged to find over the next three years to reign in its massive public deficit.

The government will find other ways to cut the deficit, avoid tax increases and ensure business can increase investment and create jobs, he said during a visit to the University of Strasbourg.

In a speech devoted entirely to research and higher education, Hollande also said he would maintain the controversial research tax credit (CIR) because companies appreciate it and it helps attracts foreign investment.

And from TheLocal.fr, a demand:

EU: France must root out corruption at local level

France remains a country where the worlds of international business and public procurement are blighted by shady dealings and corruption, according to a new EU report. But just how bad is corruption in France and how does it compare to other countries in Europe?

France needs to do more to fight corruption a new report from the European Commission argues, especially in the areas of international business transactions and public procurement, which are still ripe with misdeeds.

“Corruption-related risks in the public procurement sector and in international business transactions have not been addressed,” the report concludes.

On to Switzerland and the first of a schizy set of headlines from TheLocal.ch:

Swiss ban proposed on sex education for kids

Swiss voters will decide whether to ban compulsory sex education for children under nine after conservative groups mustered enough signatures to force a plebiscite, the authorities said on Monday.

The federal administration said campaigners had gathered more than the 100,000 signatures of voters required to put their measure to the public for approval.

The campaign coalition — whose goal is the “protection against sexualisation in kindergartens and primary schools” — handed in its petition in December and the government is now obliged to set a date for a vote.

And out of left field, also from TheLocal.ch:

Swiss want to reopen pot legalization debate

A Swiss parliamentary committee looking into drug issues wants to reopen the debate on the legalization of marijuana in the wake of developments in the US, Uruguay and New Zealand.

“Many models that exist around the world should be studied and analyzed, that is the basis of our reflection,” Toni Berthel, committee president and a member of the Swiss association for addiction, is quoted as saying by the ATS news agency.

Berthel confirmed information reported on Sunday by the Schweiz am Sonntag weekly newspaper about the new look at Swiss cannabis laws.

Spain next and a matter of perception from El País:

95 percent of Spaniards see corruption as institutionalized

  • “Political will is absent” in battle against graft, notes Brussels report

Ninety-five percent of Spaniards believe corruption is generalized, according to the first continent-wide study on the issue by the European Commission. Only respondents in Greece (99 percent) and Italy (97 percent) outdid Spain. The report, which was presented on Monday in Brussels, underscores the magnitude of the issue in Europe: three out of four EU citizens believe corruption is an institutional problem.

In two areas of the survey Spain topped the charts. Asked if the level of corruption has risen in the past three years, 77 percent said yes, more than in the other 27 member states. Two out of every three respondents said that corruption affected their daily lives, more than in any other nation. The survey was conducted in February and March 2013, when a series of corruption scandals involving the government, labor unions, political parties and the monarchy occupied the front pages in Spain.

From TheLocal.es, Coke Zero:

Zero tolerance to Coke plant closures

Thousands of workers from Coca-Cola bottling factories in Spain marched on Sunday in protest at plant closures they say will cost 750 jobs.

In red caps and vests bearing the logo of the giant US drinks company, crowds marched in Madrid and the eastern city of Alicante, where two of the threatened plants are located.

Coca-Cola’s plan to close four of its bottling factories in Spain is expected to lead to 750 workers being laid off and 500 others being offered relocation to other plants.

Another protest from thinkSPAIN:

Nationwide protest over ‘abusive’ electricity costs

THOUSANDS of people across Spain joined in a countrywide protest over rocketing electricity prices on Saturday.

Demonstrations were held in 23 cities, mostly provincial capitals, including Madrid, Valencia, Alicante, Barcelona, Murcia, Málaga, Almería, Granada, Córdoba, Huelva, Sevilla, Cádiz, Jaén, and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Carrying banners calling for Luz a precio justo (‘electricity at a fair price’), the demonstrators clamoured against the government’s forcing the consumer to bear the cost of its own debt with energy suppliers, leaving already hard-pressed householders suffering prohibitive prices.

And an austerian measure from TheLocal.es:

King freezes wages of Queen and Princess

King Don Juan Carlos has gone against the trend of royal secrecy in Spain and publicized the new fixed salaries of his wife Queen Sofía and daughter-in-law Princess Letizia.

It’s the first time the 76-year-old monarch has willingly made information on royal earnings available to Spain’s general public.

In a press release published by Spain’s Zarzuela Palace, the newly-fixed wages of royal family members have been disclosed in detail.

Queen Sofía of Spain will earn €131,739 in 2014, a sum roughly resembling her wages last year but which is no longer determined by so-called representation costs.

As for Letizia Ortiz, wife of Prince Felipe and future queen of Spain, she will receive a grand total of €102,464.

El País schmoozes:

Rajoy looks to 2015 race with soothing pledges for tax reform and stimulus measures

  • PM bashes Rubalcaba for being negative and blames Socialist leader for current “agony”

The Popular Party (PP) on Sunday officially kicked off the beginning of the second half of its current term in government with pledges from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to carry out his long-awaited ambitious tax reform and other economic measures to help Spain get back on its feet.

As PP officials begin to look toward the next general elections scheduled for the end of next year, the ruling party has tried to use its three-day political conference in Valladolid to showcase proposed strategies in an effort to win voters’ confidence in its recovery plan. But at the close of national meeting, Rajoy avoided offering any specifics on his plans, but was able to muster rallying cheers from stalwart party members with an unusually aggressive attack on opposition Socialist Party leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba.

The verbal blitzkrieg was seen as an attempt to breathe new life into an increasingly embattled Popular Party, which finds itself bitterly divided on a range of issues, including the government’s proposal for abortion reform; the route that should be taken that would lead to ETA’s eventual demise; and the ongoing public corruption inquiries that have engulfed many of its members.

Italy next, starting with a Bunga Bunga bounceback from New Europe:

Italy: Poll finds Berlusconi-led government would win election

Judges may be convicting him and prosecutors opening yet new probes, but it seems that Italians would yet again elect a Berlusconi-led government it they had to vote now. According to a new poll published in February 3, a center-right alliance led by embattled former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would be the most likely winner if Italians were to vote now under a reform proposal currently before parliament.

The poll, commissioned by newspaper Corriere della Sera and conducted by the Ipsos agency found that potential center-right coalition would get 37.9 percent of the vote, above the 37 percent threshold needed under the new rules being examined to obtain a large winner’s bonus of parliamentary seats without having repeat elections.

The centre left according to the same poll would get 36 percent while Bepe Grillo’s 5-Star protest movement 20.7 percent.

TheLocal.it hyperbolizes:

Five Star bloggers ‘potential rapists’: MP

Italy’s lower house speaker has accused the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of instigating violence and slammed bloggers on the party website as “potential rapists” following a flurry of sexist abuse online.

Laura Boldrini was commenting on a post on the Facebook page belonging to the Five Star Movement’s leader Beppe Grillo, which asked on Saturday “what would you do if you found Boldrini in your car?”

The question, which accompanied a satirical video and was taken up on the movement’s official website, sparked a series of abusive comments, including calls for Boldrini to be raped.

The post was an “instigation to violence, just look at the comments it prompted, nearly all of which were made in a sexist context,” Boldrini said in an interview late Sunday on Italian television.

And from TheLocal.it, ubiquity:

Almost all Italians think corruption is rife

Almost all Italians believe that corruption is widespread in their country, according to the European Commission’s anti-corruption report released on Monday. While some progress has been made, the EU’s executive body highlighted a number of areas in need of urgent action.

Ninety-seven percent of Italians think that corruption is rife, second only to Greece with 99 percent and well above the European average of 76 percent, the European Commission report found.

Bribery and connections are the easiest ways to get certain public services, 88 percent of Italians believe, compared to 73 percent of Europeans.

People in Italy, however, are more optimistic than those in Greece, where 93 percent of the population believe bribery is the easiest way to get what you want, compared to 92 percent in Cyprus and 89 percent in Slovakia and Croatia.

TheLocal.it again, with oldies and not-so-goodies:

Crisis-hit Italians survive on out of date food

Italians may be well-known for their healthy diet, but more are eating food well past its use-by date as the effects of the financial crisis continue to bite, according to new figures from Coldiretti, the Italian farmers association.

Fifty-nine percent of Italians, or six out of ten, eat out of date food, with fifteen percent eating food that is a month or more old, the association revealed.

Eight percent are eating food that is way beyond a month after its use-by date, while 34 percent are consuming products up to a week old and two percent never check expiry dates.

Coldiretti said the “worrying trend” poses a “significant risk to health”

After the jump, the latest on the Greek crisis, Ukrainian uncertainty, Russia currency freefall, Indian action, Thai troubles continue, Vietnamese expectations, more Chinese warning signs and neoliberal moves, Abenomics fails, pesticide alerts and other environmental woes, and the latest edition of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .and more:  Continue reading

Stark images of California’s epochal drought


UPDATE: At the end.

First, from the National Drought Mitigation Center, California in context of the American West, shoowing the Central Valley in the grip of the most severe category, “Exceptional Drought,” and surrounded by the only relatively more moderate “Extreme Drought”:

BLOG Drought West

Second, from Climate Central, a look at conditions in California’s North. Central Region, and South:

BLOG Drought

From Climate Central:

The stakes are high for California, the country’s most populous state with 38 million residents. It has a $44.7 billion agricultural industry that generates more than $100 billion in related economic activity. California produces nearly half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables and it is the leading dairy state. The state’s farm cash receipts in 2012 were $13 billion more than that of Iowa, the No. 2 agricultural state. Because California farms depend heavily on irrigation to sustain production during the dry season, drought constitutes a dire threat to the state’s economy.

The federal government has designated nearly 9 percent of the state as being in “exceptional drought,” the worst category. It’s the first time in the 15-year history of the Drought Monitor that any California territory had reached that status. Longer-running records indicate the 13-month drought, which is part of a 3-year dry period, is equal to or worse than any other short-term drought and is among the top 10 worst droughts to hit California in the past 500 years, based on tree-ring records and instrument data. The drought is part of a broader Western drought that has lasted for roughly 13 years, raising the specter of a modern-day “megadrought” akin to events that doomed some ancient civilizations.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a continued likelihood of drier-than-average conditions across much of California through the months of February and March, which are typically the last two months the state sees widespread heavy precipitation before the dry season sets in.

UPDATE: And as is wont to happen when hard times hit farmers, some are taking their case to a higher venue.

From The Guardian:

Nevada farmers turn to prayer as drought grips western US states

  • Religious leaders and farmers held multi-faith prayer service in Reno to ask the divine for help easing drought conditions

Religious leaders of multiple faiths and farmers in Nevada and Utah turned to prayer this weekend for help easing severe drought conditions gripping the west.

The plea to above comes weeks after the federal government declared parts of 11 parched western and central states natural disaster areas.

Faith leaders asked for divine intervention during a special multi-faith service Saturday at a Mormon church in the Reno, Nevada suburb of Sparks. And on Sunday, the Utah Farm Bureau Federation asked the public to join in prayer and fasting for snow and rain for livestock and crops as part of its Harvesting Faith event.

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoEcoFukuics


Today’s collection of headlines from the realm of human transactions and their consequences begins with the jaded avocations of the big winners. From The Guardian:

Super rich shift their thrills from luxury goods to costly experiences

  • Gourmet dining, private flights, bespoke safaris, slimming clinics and art auctions emerging as top status symbols

They say money can’t buy happiness but the world’s super rich are still giving it their best shot, spending $1.8tn (£1.1tn)last year on luxury goods and services – with extreme holidays, gourmet dining and art auctions emerging as the status symbols du jour.

“Luxury is shifting rapidly from ‘having’ to ‘being’ – that is, consumers are moving from owning a luxury product to experiencing a luxury,” said BCG senior partner Antonella Mei-Pochtler. “They already have the luxury toys; the cars and the jewellery.”

Of the $1.8tn spent on luxuries in 2013, according to BCG an estimated $1tn went on services – from private airline flights to luxury slimming clinics, to a five-star hospital stay where the patient will be waited on by a butler and the en-suite facilities include a marble bath.

The £1.1tn spent is slightly more than the wealth controlled by the poorest half of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people. Oxfam recently estimated their combined wealth at £1tn in a report on inequality, where it pointed out that this sum was the same as the wealth controlled by the world’s richest 85 billionaires.

Warnings of things to come from the London Telegraph:

Currency crisis at Chinese banks ‘could trigger global meltdown’

  • A rise in foreign funding at China’s banks poses a threat for international lenders

The growing problems in the Chinese banking system could spill over into a wider financial crisis, one of the most respected analysts of China’s lenders has warned.

Charlene Chu, a former senior analyst at Fitch in Beijing and now the head of Asian research at Autonomous Research, said the rapid expansion of foreign-currency borrowing meant a crisis in China’s financial system was becoming a bigger risk for international banks.

“One of the reasons why the situation in China has been so stable up to this point is that, unlike many emerging markets, there is very, very little reliance on foreign funding. As that changes, it obviously increases their vulnerability to swings in foreign investor appetite,” said Ms Chu in an interview with The Telegraph.

Reuters covers losses:

Emerging market funds lose $9 billion in past week: data

Investors yanked $9 billion from emerging stock and bond funds during a turbulent past week, with equities seeing their biggest outflow in 2-1/2 years, banks said on Friday citing data from Boston-based fund tracker EPFR Global.

EPFR had released data to clients late on Thursday showing emerging equity funds lost $6.3 billion in the week to January 29, the biggest weekly outflow since August 2011.

This week has seen some major falls in emerging currencies’ exchange rates, with central banks forced into rate rises or market interventions to limit the swings. Those currency losses and rate rises have put pressure on bond and stock holdings, forcing exits.

The New York Times brings it closer to Casa esnl:

Parched, California Cuts Off Tap to Agencies

Acting in one of the worst droughts in California’s history, state officials announced on Friday that they would cut off the water that it provides to local agencies serving 25 million residents and about 750,000 acres of farmland.

With no end in sight for the dry spell and reservoirs at historic lows, Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said his agency needed to preserve what little water remained so it could be used “as wisely as possible.”

It is the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project that water allocations to all of the public water agencies it serves have been cut to zero. That decision will force 29 local agencies to look elsewhere for water. Most have other sources they can draw from, such as groundwater and local reservoirs.

But the drought has already taken a toll on those supplies, and some cities, particularly in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, rely almost exclusively on the State Water Project, Mr. Cowin said.

MintPress News eases up:

CA Law Enforcement Proposes Softening Drug Laws

If passed, those convicted for drug possession would be sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service, instead of being incarcerated.

For decades, law enforcement officers across the U.S. have fought the war on drugs by locking users behind bars. But since that strategy hasn’t proven to be successful in the slightest, some officers in California have come together to propose reducing charges for the simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

One of the proposal’s biggest supporters is San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who is working with San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne to push for the inclusion of such a measure on the state ballot this fall.

If passed, those convicted for drug possession, including heroin, would be sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service, instead of being locked behind bars. Unlike a felony, a misdemeanor charge would not appear on an individual’s permanent record.

The Guardian condescends to profit:

US newspapers fall out over ‘dead peasant’ insurance

Two weeks ago, the publisher of two Californian newspapers – the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise – laid off 39 employees, including eight full-time newsroom staff and four part-time sub-editors and designers.

It was part of a restructuring programme by Freedom Communications, following 42 redundancies in December, as it seeks to centralise Press-Enterprise production at the Register’s offices.

Then Freedom followed up that bad news by sending an email to the staff who remain informing them that the company wishes to buy life insurance for them.

But the beneficiaries of the million-dollar-plus policies will not be the employees or their families, but the company’s pension scheme.

A writer in the Los Angles Times (the Register’s rival), Michael Hiltzik, referred to the plan as a “ghoulish corporate strategy”. He went on to explain that it is not illegal – it’s known formally as COLI (“company owned life insurance”).

More losers from Al Jazeera America:

More jobless Americans losing benefits every week

  • Unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, as Congress fails to renew payments for more than 1.5 million on the dole

The lifeline of long-term unemployment benefits ended for at least 1.5 million Americans at the end of December, and more will see their payments cut each week that Congress fails to act. Almost 38 percent of the unemployed had been out of work for 27 weeks or more as of December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the unemployment rate is down to 6.7 percent from 10 percent in October 2008, at the height of the recession, 10.4 million people remained out of work in December.

The Guardian loads up the money bin:

Google reports 17% revenue rise for fourth quarter

  • Results come a day after search giant sells Motorola Mobile
  • Low-cost mobile ads chip away at the price for online ads

Google’s revenues climbed 17% in the final quarter of 2013, the company announced Thursday, but low-cost mobile ads chipped away at the price the tech giant commands for online ads.

The company’s results came a day after it announced it was selling Motorola Mobile for a fraction of its purchase price. Google’s consolidated revenue, which includes the money-losing Motorola smartphone business, rose to $16.86bn for the quarter from $14.42bn in the fourth quarter of 2012. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected $16.75bn. Profits rose 17% to $3.38bn, or $9.90 a share, up from $2.89bn, or $8.62 per share, for the same period last year.

From The Hill, Hillary-ous idiocy:

Mont. House candidate calls Hillary Clinton ‘Antichrist’

Montana House candidate Ryan Zinke, the early Republican front-runner for Montana’s open House seat, called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the “Antichrist” in a recent campaign appearance, according to a local newspaper.

“We need to focus on the real enemy,” he said referring to Clinton, according to the Big Fork Eagle, before calling her the Antichrist.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is one of six Republicans in a crowded field to replace Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is running for the Senate. He’s emerged as the early front-runner in the GOP primary due to his fundraising prowess. Zinke raised $450,000 in the last three months of 2013 and has $350,000 in the bank.

Bloomberg plays the middle:

House Republicans’ Economic Agenda Targets Middle Class

U.S. House Republican leaders are preparing an economic agenda that includes energy proposals aimed at lowering utility bills and countering President Barack Obama’s focus on income inequality, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News.

The agenda includes voting on an alternative measure to Obama’s health-care law and re-authorizing a funding program for career and technical education. The framework is designed to reach middle-class voters whose wages have remained stagnant even as the U.S. economy improves.

The broad outline was distributed to Republicans yesterday at a private meeting in Cambridge, Maryland, where lawmakers are concluding a three-day policy retreat today. Republicans, largely blamed for the 16-day partial government shutdown in October, want their positions to be seen as an alternative to those of Obama and the Democrats.

The Guardian spots the flaw:

The problem with retirement savings: making enough money to save

  • The president’s new MyRA plan is a tiny, positive step for Americans, but it won’t help so long as wages are shrinking

Americans don’t have a problem saving for retirement. The real issue is that Americans aren’t making enough money.

There’s no question that a retirement crisis is looming. The numbers just don’t work for many Americans right now. For instance, do you think you can live on only $575 a month? That’s for rent, food, utilities, and transportation as well as any fun you may want to have. Probably not: an income of $575 a month is well below the federal poverty line. Yet that’s the estimate of how much the average American with a 401k plan will be able to earn from his or her nest egg. And about half of all Americans don’t even have a 401k plan, often because their employer doesn’t offer one.

Across the Atlantic with Europe Online:

Annual eurozone inflation unexpectedly falls in January

Annual eurozone inflation unexpectedly fell in January, according to data released Friday, adding to deflation fears and increasing pressure on the European Central Bank to deliver a new interest rate cut.

The cost of living in the 18-member currency bloc dropped to 0.7 per cent in January, from 0.8 per cent in December, the European Statistics Office Eurostat said.

The fall in consumer prices took inflation further away from the ECB’s annual inflation target of below but close to 2 per cent.

Bothering BBC News:

Fall in eurozone inflation rate fuels deflation concerns

Calls for European Central Bank action to help protect the eurozone’s fragile recovery have grown after the release of inflation and jobless data.

Official figures showed that eurozone inflation fell to 0.7% in January, down from 0.8% in December and further below the ECB’s 2% target.

It has fuelled worries about whether the euro bloc could suffer deflation, potentially de-railing economic growth.

Separate data showed the unemployment rate in December was unchanged at 12%.

Edible insecurity from EurActiv:

Food security hindered by seed market dominance, MEPs warn

The EU seed market is dominated by a few large seed businesses rather than a diverse range of smaller companies, which has implications for the continent’s food security, says a report commissioned by European Parliament Green group.

Five companies control about 95% of the vegetable seed sector and 75% of the maize market share specifically, according to the report, presented in the European Parliament on Wednesday (29 January).

The assertion goes against European Commission and seed industry’s position that the market, and the five dominant companies, is made up of some 7000 mainly small and medium-sized entreprises, allowing for healthy competition.

“This is simply not true. The EU seed market is not healthy. It is not diversified,” said Bart Staes, a Green MEP from Belgium who presented the report, ‘Concentration of market power in the EU seed market’.

On to Britain with The Guardian:

Real wages have been falling for longest period for at least 50 years, ONS says

  • Real wages have been falling by 2.2% a year in the longest sustained period of falling real wages in the UK on record

Real wages have been falling consistently since 2010, the longest period for 50 years, according to the Office for National Statistics, adding that low productivity growth seems to be pushing wages down.

Real wage growth averaged 2.9% in the 1970s and 1980s, 1.5% in the 1990s, 1.2% in 2000s, but has fallen to minus 2.2% since the first quarter of 2010, the ONS figures showed.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Over the last four years British workers have suffered an unprecedented real wage squeeze.

All or none with EUbusiness:

British PM pledges renewed EU referendum push

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Friday to force through parliament a bill guaranteeing an in-or-out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017, after the upper house killed off legislation.

He pledged to wield the Parliament Act, which enforces the supremacy of the elected lower House of Commons over the appointed upper House of Lords.

The act is only rarely used to overcome the Lords blocking the will of the Commons. It has only ever been enacted a handful of times since it was introduced in 1911.

Norway next, with an exclusive from TheLocal.no:

Norway oil fund blacklists Israeli firms

Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, blacklisted two Israeli companies involved in construction of settlements in East Jerusalem, the country’s finance ministry said Thursday.

The ban on investing in the firms revived a three-year prohibition on them that the Government Pension Fund of Norway had dropped in August last year.

The companies are Africa Israel Investments, an Israeli real estate developer, and its construction subsidiary Danya Cerbus.

The ministry cited the company’s alleged “contribution to serious violations of individual rights in war or conflict through the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem,” a territory where Israel’s claims are not recognised by the international community.

On to Amsterdam and an austerian retreat from DutchNews.nl:

Single parents on welfare benefits ‘won’t have to apply for jobs’

The government has agreed to drop plans to force single mothers with young children and on welfare benefits to apply for jobs.

Kees van der Staaij, leader of the orthodox Christian party SGP, broke the news during a debate organised by the religious paper Nederlands Dagblad. Talks between junior social affairs minister Jetta Klijnsma and opposition parties on reaching a compromise on the reforms are currently ongoing.

Klijnsma wants to shake up the welfare system by making sure claimants are actively looking for work and introducing work for welfare schemes. But she needs the support of opposition parties to get the changes through the upper house of parliament, where the government does not have a majority.

Germany next, first with TheLocal.de:

US view of Germany ‘better than ever’

Despite America’s reputation in Germany taking a hit over the NSA spying scandal, Americans have a more positive impression of Germany than at any time in the last 12 years, according to a study released on Thursday.

The annual Magid study, which has been conducted every year since 2002, included questions on US-German relations as well as Germany’s role in Europe.

Carried out at the end of  2013, it found 60 percent of Americans had an excellent or good impression of Germany, particularly on economics, education and technology.

Germany was also seen as an economic leader and was chosen as the country best suited to lead Europe out of its debt crisis, followed by Great Britain and the US.

Europe Online declines:

German Christmas retail sales unexpectedly slump

German retail sales fell during the key Christmas shopping season, according to data released Friday, setting back hopes of private consumption emerging as a driving force behind growth in Europe’s biggest economy.

Retail sales fell 2.5 per cent in real terms in December, after gaining 0.9 per cent in November. Analysts had expected retail sales to increase by 0.2 per cent.

Year-on-year, retail sales also posted a surprise fall, dropping by 2.4 per cent in December, compared with a 1.1-per-cent rise in November.

Another decline from RFI:

France deports fewer illegal immigrants in 2013

French Interior minister Manuel Valls has announced that 27,000 illegal immigrants were deported in 2013, 9,000 fewer than in 2012. The right-wing opposition slammed the Socialist government’s performance as “laxism”.

Some 46,000 undocumented immigrants were given papers to stay, 10,000 more than the previous year, the figures, published Friday, showed.
Parliamentary elections 2012

They are the first official review of government migration policy since François Hollande came to power in May 2012.

TheLocal.fr hits the bricks:

Thousands march for traditional family values

Tens of thousands of people marched in Paris and Lyon on Sunday against new laws easing abortion restrictions and legalising gay marriage, accusing French President Francois Hollande’s government of “family phobia”.

Police said 80,000 people took to the streets of the French capital, creating a sea of blue, white and pink – the colours of the lead organising movement LMPT (Protest for Everyone) – who gave a far higher turnout figure of half a million.

Demonstrator Philippe Blin, a pastor from nearby Sevres, said he felt a “relentlessness against the family” in France.

At least 20,000 rallied in Lyon, many of them ferried in aboard dozens of buses, waving placards reading “Mom and Dad, There’s Nothing Better for a Child” and “Two Fathers, Two Mothers, Children With No Bearings” — a slogan that rhymes in French.

While France 24 notes odd political bedfellows:

Muslims join Paris protest against gender equality drive in schools

Tens of thousands of supporters of the conservative “Manif pour Tous” movement gathered in Paris on Sunday to protest against gender equality teaching in schools and fertility treatment for same-sex couples.

Sunday’s march included a prominent Muslim contribution in a protest movement, originally opposed to gay marriage legislation that was passed in 2013, that has so far been overwhelmingly linked to far-right political parties and to conservative Catholic groups.

The “Manif Pour Tous” (MPT) mounted huge protests before legislation was passed in 2013 allowing gay marriages. Its focus now is on a family law, due to be debated later in the spring, which would allow for medically-assisted procreation (MAP) and IVF treatment for same-sex couples.

Many protesters also told FRANCE 24 they were worried about the state’s role in sex education, and the supposed “gender theory” lurking behind an “ABCD of equality” initiative aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes in schools.

From Spain, a countermarch from TheLocal.es:

Thousands join Madrid abortion-rights rally

Thousands of pro-choice campaigners converged on the Spanish capital Saturday to voice their opposition to a government plan to restrict access to abortion in the mainly Catholic country.

Demonstrators shouting slogans and carrying banners that read “It’s my right, It’s my life” crowded around a Madrid station to greet a “freedom train” of activists from northern Spain for the country’s first major protest against the plan.

Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government announced on December 20th it would roll back a 2010 law that allows women to opt freely for abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The new law — yet to pass parliament, where the ruling People’s Party enjoys an absolute majority — would allow abortion only in cases of rape or a threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother.

Xinhua takes vows:

Spanish PM Rajoy promises fiscal reform, tax cuts

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy promised on Sunday to see through a program of fiscal reform in the remaining two years of his mandate.

Speaking to close the national convention of his ruling Popular Party (PP), Rajoy said he would continue with the program of reforms his party have introduced in the slightly over two years since they have been in power.

“We will carry out fiscal reform: of course we will,” said Rajoy, who said it would be “an integral reform which will stimulate growth and employment in line with the recovery of the country.”

The ultimate human austerian cost from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s suicide rate highest in eight years

Figures from Spain’s National Institute of Statistics (INE) show a surge in the suicide rate but heart attacks remain the leading cause of death.

The most recent data from 2012, released on Friday, reveals that 402,950 people died in Spain, some 15,039 (3.9 percent) more than in 2011.

There were 3539 suicides (2,724 men and 815 women), up 11.3 percent from the year before, a rate of 7.6  per 100,000 inhabitants. The figures were the highest since 2005.

According to official broadcaster RTVE, suicide was second only to cancer (15 percent of deaths) in the overall 25-34 age group, but the leading cause of death in young men (17.8 percent).

A Fourth Estate loss from TheLocal.es:

Corruption-probing newspaper chief sacked

Spain’s leading centre-right newspaper El Mundo said on Thursday it was dismissing its director Pedro J. Ramirez, under whose leadership the daily broke a series of political corruption stories.

Ramirez’s scoops included a report last year of alleged secret payments to members of Spain’s ruling party, which forced Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to fight off calls to resign.

The paper has vigorously pursued stories of corruption on the right and left, including allegations of fraud involving former officials in the Socialist-run southern region of Andalusia.

The usual suspects, doing quite well, via TheLocal.es:

Spain’s top banks enjoy 2013 profit surge

Top Spanish banks have reported a 2013 profit surge, predicting better times ahead after taking hefty losses in Spain and other crisis-hit eurozone nations.

Santander, BBVA and CaixaBank said they had emerged stronger from banking troubles that led to a 41-billion-euro ($56 billion) rescue of their weaker rivals in Spain.

All Spanish banks have had to set aside money for losses on assets, pounded by the collapse in 2008 of a decade-long property boom.

At the same time, they have been obliged to boost the ratio of rock-solid core capital on their balance sheets.

Analysts say risks remain in the sector, with doubtful loans rising in November to 13.08 percent of all credit extended by Spanish banks, the highest since records began in their existing form in 1962.

Xinhua takes us to Portugal:

Portuguese protest against gov’t austerity measures

Thousands of Portuguese staged a protest Saturday against government austerity measures in the downtown of capital Lisbon.

General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers, or CGTP, who organized the demonstration, called for the Portuguese to struggle against the government, oppose the exploitation and poverty and demand for salary rise, employment and welfare.

Raising high placards, the demonstrators marched from Cais Sodre railway station towards Restaurante Square in downtown Lisbon, chanting slogans against government austerity measures and calling for the government to step down.

Italy next, and a populist movement critiqued via AGI:

M5S has been shown ‘excessive’ tolerance, says Letta

Italy’s Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, said “excessive levels of tolerance” had been shown to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) following recent controversy.

The group promised to never sit peacefully in parliament again after the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, used the hotly debated ‘guillotine’ to swiftly convert a decree on the IMU property tax into law, culminating in the group demanding her resignation, as well as the impeachment of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

“I think there has been an excessive level of tolerance towards methods falling outside those allowed by democratic rules”, Letta stated during a press conference. “Both the accusations towards President Napolitano and behaviour in parliament must be strongly and clearly condemned”.

After the jump, the ongoing Greek crisis, Ukrainian posturing, Argentine financial woes, Indian uncertainty, Thai electoral turmoil, Malaysian misery, mixed signals from China, Japanese anxieties, ecological disasters, and Fuksuhimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEcoGrecoFukunoma


Today’s collection of headlines economic, political, and environmental begins with on ominous note with The Independent:

Advances in artificial intelligence could lead to mass unemployment, warn experts

  • Academics say half of US jobs could be automated within a decade or two

Experts have warned that rapidly improving artificial intelligence could lead to mass unemployment just days after Google revealed the purchase of a London based start-up dedicated to developing this technology.

Speaking on Radio 4′s Today programme, Dr Stuart Armstrong from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford said that there was a risk that computers could take over human jobs “at a faster rate than new jobs could be generated.”

“We have some studies looking at to which jobs are the most vulnerable and there are quite a lot of them in logistics, administration, insurance underwriting,” said Dr Armstrong. “Ultimately, huge swathe of jobs are potentially vulnerable to improved artificial intelligence.”

Dr Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, agreed, noting that improvements in artificial intelligence were creating “short term issues that we all need to be talking about.”

BBC News booms:

US economy growing at 3.2% in the fourth quarter, official figures show

The US economy grew at a 3.2% annual rate for the final quarter of 2013, according to the country’s Commerce Department.

Many predict that 2014 will produce the strongest growth since the end of the US recession in mid-2009.

Optimism over the health of the world’s largest economy led to a further easing of the Federal Reserve’s stimulus measures on Wednesday.

A cautionary note from Reuters:

Exclusive: U.S. banking regulator, fearing loan bubble, warns funds

A U.S. bank regulator is warning about the dangers of banks and alternative asset managers working together to do risky deals and get around rules amid concerns about a possible bubble in junk-rated loans to companies.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has already told banks to avoid some of the riskiest junk loans to companies, but is alarmed that banks may still do such deals by sharing some of the risk with asset managers.

“We do not see any benefit to banks working with alternative asset managers or shadow banks to skirt the regulation and continue to have weak deals flooding markets,” said Martin Pfinsgraff, senior deputy comptroller for large bank supervision at the OCC, in a statement in response to questions from Reuters.

Among the investors in alternative asset managers are pension funds that have funding issues of their own, he said.

Banksters behaving badly from Reuters:

U.S. seeks $2.1 billion from Bank of America in fraud case

The U.S. government has raised the amount it is seeking in penalties from Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) to $2.1 billion after a jury found the bank was liable for fraud over defective mortgages sold by its Countrywide unit.

The request in a court filing late on Wednesday was based on gross revenue generated by the fraud, the government said. The Justice Department had previously asked for $863.6 million.

The initial request was based on gross losses it said government-sponsored mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae (FNMA.OB) and Freddie Mac (FMCC.OB) incurred on loans purchased from Countrywide Financial Corp in 2007 and 2008.

Tapering with BBC News:

US Federal Reserve slows monthly bond-buying to $65bn

The US Federal Reserve announced a $10bn (£6bn) reduction in its monthly bond purchases from $75bn to $65bn in the second straight month of winding down stimulus efforts.

The central bank had been buying bonds in an effort to keep interest rates low and stimulate growth.

In a statement, the Fed said that “growth in economic activity picked up” since it last met in December.

Although the move was expected, US shares still fell on the news.

Screwing the poor with The Guardian:

Congress axes $8.6bn from food stamps in farm bill

  • Richer farmers get bigger subsidies in immediate snub to Barack Obama’s State of the Union call for action on inequality

Congress has agreed to cut $8.6bn from the federal food stamp program while increasing government subsidies for richer farmers, dealing a swift rebuke to Barack Obama’s call for a year of action on economic inequality.

Within hours of the president’s State of the Union speech, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to adopt the measures as part of a wide-ranging farm bill that passed by 251 to 166 votes and has already been endorsed by the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

The cuts to federal food stamps come on top of a $5bn cut in November and will reduce payments to 1.7 million of the poorest Americans by an estimated $90 a month.

Golden State woes from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Amid one of the worst droughts in California’s recorded history, state officials say 17 communities and water districts could run dry within 100 days

The threatened towns and districts are mostly small and in rural areas. They get their water in a variety of ways, from reservoirs to wells to rivers. But in all cases, a nearly rainless winter has left their supplies approaching empty.

In the greater Bay Area, Cloverdale and Healdsburg in Sonoma County are among those at risk of running out of water. The small Lompico Water District in the Santa Cruz Mountains is also on the list.

Bloomberg itemizes:

California Farms Going Thirsty as Drought Burns $5 Billion Hole

The drought in California, the top U.S. agricultural producer at $44.7 billion, is depriving the state of water needed to produce everything from milk, beef and wine to some of the nation’s largest fruit and vegetable crops, including avocados, strawberries and almonds. Lost revenue in 2014 from farming and related businesses such as trucking and processing could reach $5 billion, according to estimates by the 300-member California Farm Water Coalition, an industry group.

The state was the driest ever in 2013, a third straight year of little moisture. California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17 as arid conditions he called “unprecedented” continued well into the annual rainy season that runs from October through March. Reservoirs on Jan. 27 were at 61 percent of average, while the mountain snow-pack as of Dec. 30 that supplies most of the state’s water was at 20 percent of normal for that time of year, data show.

And a global story from New Europe:

UNDP: Income inequality increased compared with 1990s

UNDP published a report on income inequality in the developing countries stressing that inequality increased by 11 per cent between 1990 and 2010.

According to the report, more than 75 per cent of the population in developing countries is living today in societies where income is more unequally distributed than it was in the 1990s. The report underlined that inclusive growth policies are important policy tools for reducing income inequality.

Helen Clark, administrator of the UNDP said according to a press release that “inequalities on today’s levels are unjust in both developing and developed countries…Over the last few decades, poverty rates have declined in every region of the world; emerging market countries have grown with unprecedented speed; and life

Advice from China Daily:

Replace dollar with super currency: economist

The World Bank’s former chief economist wants to replace the US dollar with a single global super-currency, saying it will create a more stable global financial system.

“The dominance of the greenback is the root cause of global financial and economic crises,” Justin Yifu Lin told Bruegel, a Brussels-based policy-research think tank. “The solution to this is to replace the national currency with a global currency.”

Lin, now a professor at Peking University and a leading adviser to the Chinese government, said expanding the basket of major reserve currencies — the dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen and pound sterling — will not address the consequences of a financial crisis. Internationalizing the Chinese currency is not the answer, either, he said.

On to Europe and a regulatory call from Deutsche Welle:

EU presents more proposals to curb risky banking activities

  • The European Commission has proposed measures to rein in risky banking activities in heeding the lessons from the global financial crisis. It focused on stopping dubious trading by lenders “too big to fail.”

The proposals presented in Brussels on Wednesday centered on 30 large European banks, accounting for more than 65 percent of the EU’s total banking assets.

According to the suggestions made, these lenders would be banned from proprietary trading, a practice under which banks make bets using their own money and not that of customers.

The lenders could be forced to also separate other risky trading activities from their deposit-taking business which would make them far less vulnerable in a crisis situation.

Deutsche Welle again, with labor action:

European air traffic controllers go on strike over EU initiative

Air traffic controllers have begun a two-day strike over an EU initiative they fear will cause job cuts and more difficult working conditions, causing some delays. The EU is to vote on the measure on Thursday.

Air traffic controllers across several EU nations were expected to go on strike on Wednesday. The move was prompted by the EU’s Single European Sky initiative, which seeks to centralize the continent’s airspace and reduce congestion and inefficiencies costing airlines an estimated 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion) annually.

Some 20 flights out of Lisbon in Portugal were cancelled on Wednesday, while Rome’s Fiumincino hub was also hit with cancelations and delays. In anticipation of the focus turning to Paris, the civil aviation authority asked airlines to reduce traffic into the French capital by 20 percent.

German workers had originally planned on joining the strike action. However, an injunction filed by German flagship carrier Lufthansa last week prevented them from doing so.

Britain next and an alarm from Xinhua:

Warning bells ring over British current account deficit

The British economy performed well in 2013 with 1.9 percent GDP growth, and some economists predict growth of up to 3 percent this year, but warning bells are sounding over the size of Britain’s current account deficit.

Simon Wells, chief UK economist with HSBC Global Research, raised worries over the unbalanced nature of growth in the British economy and the current account deficit, which stands at 5.1 percent of GDP in Q3 2013, close to a peacetime record.

Wells said, “Of the 40 countries covered by HSBC economists, the UK has the fifth largest current account deficit. And while most countries have narrowed deficits over the past five years, the UK’s is one of the few that have widened.”

The Guardian takes note:

Mortgage lending at six-year high

  • Bank of England says £12.4bn of new mortgages were approved in December 2013

The number of mortgages taken out to buy homes reached its highest level in almost six years in December, figures from the Bank of England showed, as the housing market continued to gather speed despite the slide into winter.

A total of 71,638 loans were approved for house purchase, above the previous six-month average of 65,001 and the highest monthly figure since January 2008 when the credit crisis and economic slowdown started to take hold of the market.

The government’s Funding for Lending scheme to offer cheap fund to banks and building societies, and the second part of Help to Buy which offers a taxpayer-backed guarantee on mortgages up to 95%, have both made home loans cheaper and more accessible to those with small deposits.

And a polyglot headline from the London Telegraph:

The 800,000 people living in Britain with little or no English

  • Analysis of census figures shows how most people living in Britain who do not have a good command of English do not have a job

Migrants with little or no English are 50 per cent more likely to be unemployed than native speakers and three times as likely to have no formal qualifications.

The study also showed that those who do work are condemned to the lowest paid and most laborious jobs if they do not have a working command of English.

Significantly the problem is most acute among women. Overall 60 per cent of those living in England and Wales but unable to speak the national tongue are female.

Bordering on controversy with TheLocal.de:

UK and Germany locked in immigration debate

The UK and Germany are locked in the same debate over the arrival of a new wave of immigrants from eastern Europe. But despite their arguments being the same, their presentation is very different, argues The Local’s Tom Bristow.

A conservative party calls for new measures to prevent migrants moving abroad to access welfare benefits. The left hits back, defending freedom movement as a cornerstone of the European Union.

A slogan from the conservative party in the ruling coalition government is deemed populist, even racist by the pro-immigration camp – “Those who cheat are out.”

That slogan could have come from UK Prime Minister David Cameron – yet it came from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Profiteering with The Independent:

Passports for profit: British company to make ‘disgusting amounts of money’ from controversial EU passport sale

A British company has been accused of making “disgusting amounts of money” from a controversial scheme by Malta to sell European Union passports to tycoons and celebrities ranging from a former Formula One world champion to a Chinese billionaire.

Henley & Partners, a private company registered in Jersey which specialises in “citizenship solutions”, stands to make at least €60m (£49m) from its role as the designer and principal contractor for the scheme, which will sell passports for €1.15m a piece.

The programme, which is due to begin processing its first applicants next month and will provide a right to reside anywhere in the EU, including Britain, has attracted sharp criticism both within the Mediterranean island and abroad.

Iceland next, and a counterfactual from Bloomberg:

Let Banks Fail Is Iceland Mantra as 2% Joblessness in Sight

Iceland let its banks fail in 2008 because they proved too big to save.

Now, the island is finding crisis-management decisions made half a decade ago have put it on a trajectory that’s turned 2 percent unemployment into a realistic goal.

While the euro area grapples with record joblessness, led by more than 25 percent in Greece and Spain, only about 4 percent of Iceland’s labor force is without work. Prime MinisterSigmundur D. Gunnlaugsson says even that’s too high.

“Politicians always have something to worry about,” the 38-year-old said in an interview last week. “We’d like to see unemployment going from where it’s now — around 4 percent — to under 2 percent, which may sound strange to most other western countries, but Icelanders aren’t accustomed to unemployment.”

Denmark next, and a walkout over a bankster win from The Guardian:

What would Birgitte do? Socialists quit Denmark coalition over energy deal

  • Goldman Sachs’s investment in state-owned energy prompts walkout and Borgen-esque political crisis

With Borgen no longer around to keep British audiences entertained, real-life politics in Denmark continues to give the fictional version a run for its money when it comes to drama.

After a recent spate of controversies and ministerial resignations, the Danish centre-left government suffered another blow on Thursday when the Socialist People’s party (SF) left the ruling coalition amid anger over Goldman Sachs’s investment in Denmark’s state-owned energy company.

Goldman’s 8bn kroner (£900m) purchase of a 19% share in Dong Energy has been championed by the government but caused a revolt among SF’s parliamentary group. After a night of tension and discussions, SF’s leader, Annette Vilhelmsen, announced her resignation and said her party was leaving the coalition.

Germany next, and do as we say, not as we do from Independent.ie:

Germany loosens own pension rules while demanding austerity from rest of EU

Germany’s coalition government presented a pension reform plan today that will cost €160bn to 2030 by letting some workers retire earlier, loosening the purse strings at home when Berlin has demanded austerity from its euro zone partners.

Despite criticism from industry and the pro-business wing of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the cabinet endorsed what is likely to be the most expensive single measure of the legislative period when it moves through parliament in May.

An additional 900,000 workers will be able to retire earlier than expected aged 63 over the next two years provided they have worked for 45 years. Some mothers will get pension increases.

TheLocal.de has income:

Foreign investment floods into Germany

Foreign investment into Germany increased by almost 400 percent last year, rising to €23.4 billion, a UN report revealed on Tuesday. It comes amid rising consumer and investor confidence.

In 2012 foreign direct investment stood at just €6.5 billion.

But 2013′s rise was helped by major deals including the purchase of Kabel Deutschland by Vodafone for €5.6 billion.

Germany also rose up the global rankings of the world’s most attractive foreign investment locations to 14th from 40th the year before.

Europe Online admonishes:

Deutsche bank warns of challenging year ahead

Deutsche Bank is making progress in restructuring its operations but faces further costs as a result of a string of lawsuits, the co-chief of Germany’s biggest bank said Wednesday.

The coming 12 months “will be another year of challenges,” Juergen Fitschen said in Frankfurt.

Deutsche announced earlier this month a surprise fourth-quarter loss because of a weak performance by its key investment banking operations and hefty legal costs following the bank’s involvement in a series of scandals.

New Europe exudes:

Record-high for consumer confidence in Germany

Consumer confidence in Germany is rising, and according to the latest data by a research group it reached to a level, last seen in 2007.

According to international market research group GfK, consumer confidence in Germany reached 8.2 points in January from 7.6 points in December. The research group said that the January reading was higher than expected by analysts and propelled the consumer index to a level last recorded in August 2007. German citizens were more optimistic regarding their economic and income expectations and their willingness to buy was improved.

According to the press release, Germans consider the national economy to be clearly on the upturn at present and this is reflected in the fifth consecutive improvement in economic expectations. “In the wake of this, income prospects climbed to reach a 13-year high. Willingness to buy also improved and surpassed its seven-year high of the previous month,” the report says.

While Deutsche Welle declines:

Beer sales in Germany lowest since early 1990s

Over the past years, Germans have drastically reduced their beer consumption. Fresh figures showed 2013 was no exception, with sales reaching their lowest level since the country’s unification.

With Germany still considered to be a major beer-drinking nation, annual sales of alcoholic beer in the country reached a new low in 2013, the National Statistics Office ( Destatis) announced Thursday.

While the nation still had 1,300 breweries making about 5,000 varieties of the beverage, they sold only 94.6 million hectoliters last year, a fall of 2 percent compared with 2012 and a drop to levels last reached shortly after German unification in 1990.

On to Amsterdam and an increasingly common trend from DutchNews.nl:

Postal deliveries could be cut to three days a week, if EU says yes

If the European Union gives permission, Dutch postal company PostNL could cut its deliveries to three days a week, a spokesman says in Wednesday’s AD.

European Union rules state post must be delivered five days a week but moves are being made to relax this, the AD says. PostNL stopped Monday deliveries at the beginning of this year.

‘If the EU allows it, we will cut back to four or perhaps even three delivery days,’ spokesman Werner van Bastelaar told the AD.

DutchNews.nl falls off:

Dutch savings are down for the first time in 20 years

For the first time in 20 years the Dutch have less in their savings accounts, Nos television says on Wednesday.

Figures from the Dutch central bank, ING and national statistics office CBS show the total amount of savings has gone down €1bn a month since reaching a high point of €330.5bn last summer.

There are four main reasons for the decline, the CBS says: one in 20 households are so hard up they have no more money to put aside; others are using savings to pay off debts and mortgages; investing in the stock market is popular again; and people who have lost their jobs are using up their savings to live on.

France next and an economic sweet spot from TheLocal.fr:

French arms industry enjoys boom in trade

Crisis, what crisis? While certain sectors in France continue to suffer in the downturn France’s arms industry is doing a roaring trade. A new report, that won’t be welcomed by pacifists, revealed this week that sales of arms abroad have rocketed.

Despite the seemingly endless stream of bad economic news for France, there is at least one sector that’s booming: weapons. French arms makers confirmed €6.3 billion in orders to foreign countries in 2013, which represents a 31 percent jump on the previous year.

The figures released on Wednesday by the Ministry of Defence ensure France keeps its spot at number four among the world’s largest providers of weapons. The United States, the United Kingdom and Russia all sold more weapons than France in 2013.

Departures note from TheLocal.fr:

Foreign investors desert France in 2013: report

As if high unemployment, heavy public debt and an unhappy populace weren’t enough, France also saw a double digit drop in foreign investment in 2013, according to a new United Nations report on Wednesday.

Signalling yet more bad news for France’s troubled economy, a United Nations report said the country saw a 77 percent decline in direct foreign investment last year, while the global average was an 11 percent increase.

France’s results were the worst in the European Union, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade Development report released on Tuesday.

A culture war panic from France 24:

French parents pull children from school over ‘gender theory’ scare

France’s education chief threatened Wednesday to summon parents who pull their children from school after a wave of absenteeism. The row was sparked by a rumour about sex education classes that could become a new ideological battleground in France.

Thousands of parents in France received a text message on their mobile telephones last week urging them to keep their children from school on Monday. The collective action was to protest an alarming development in French primary schools: the attempt to teach students that “they are not born as boys or girls, but can choose to become one or the other.”

The grassroots campaign opposing teaching of so-called “gender theory” in French schools asked parents to go further by taking their kids out of school one day every month. It recommended this be done with no prior warning to teachers.

Hints of things to come? From TheLocal.fr:

‘First ever’ bill proposes legal cannabis in France

France is no Amsterdam when it comes to marijuana laws, in fact it has some of the toughest possession statutes in Europe, but a first of its kind bill proposed this week could change that. The lawmaker behind the legislation tells The Local why marijuana should be legalized in France.

People smoking a joint in France face a maximum penalty of a year behind bars and a €3,750 fine for the first offence, yet 13.4 million French people admit to sparking up at least once in their life. Even France’s top cop, Interior Minister Manuel Vallls, said in a recent interview, he’d tried it “maybe once.”

The numbers go up as you look at the younger portion of the population. France had the unhappy distinction of being the European “champion” of teen pot smokers in 2011 when 24 percent of its 16-year-old kids admitted to smoking at least once a month, daily Le Monde reported.

Swiss hard times intolerance from TheLocal.ch:

Support for immigrant quotas rises before vote

A plan by Swiss right-wing populists to reimpose immigration quotas for citizens from the European Union has won increased support ahead of a referendum, raising the prospect of a clash with Brussels, a new poll shows.

A total of 43 percent of those surveyed said they backed the “Stop Mass Immigration” measure which goes to a vote on February 9th, according to the survey released on Wednesday by public broadcaster SRG. That marked a major gain on the 37 percent support shown in a poll released just two weeks ago.

The survey was commissioned from the GfS Bern public opinion institute, which found that opposition to the measure had dropped by five points to 50 percent.

On to Spain and a warning from El País:

Brussels warns of risks to Spain from the crisis in emerging markets

  • Report says economic recovery “remains fragile”
  • Commission expects bad bank to have posted losses last year

The upbeat message Economy Minister Luis de Guindos gave to his colleagues at an Ecofin meeting on Tuesday on the Spanish economy contrasts with the more cautious tone of the final report on Spain’s compliance with the bailout program for its banks, made public on Wednesday by the European Commission (EC).

De Guindos told fellow European economy and finance ministers that he expects the economy to grow 1 percent this year, above the Spanish government’s official forecast of 0.7 percent, with the pace of activity sufficiently strong to allow net job creation. He also minimized the possibility of fallout from the latest crisis in emerging markets, particularly Argentina. “We can’t fall any more. Now the recovery begins,” De Guindos said, arguing that Spain “has scarcely any exposure to Argentina and other emerging markets.”

However, Brussels’ report, based on a joint mission by the EC and the European Central Bank to Madrid in the period December 2-13, warns that: “The economic recovery […] remains fragile as imbalances continue to be worked out, and subject to external risks such as a reversal of the current benign global financial environment and a slowdown in emerging markets, especially in Latin America, to which Spanish companies are particularly exposed.”

More misery demanded from TheLocal.es:

‘Spain’s record wage cuts not enough’: IMF

The International Monetary Fund has asked Spain to further reduce salaries even though it has already slashed average wages by 20 percent over the past two years – the fastest drop in the country’s democratic history.

The International Monetary Fund has revised up its 2014 growth forecast for Spain to 0.6 percent, or more than triple the figure it forecast in October last year, but this is still very modest and it continues to expect more.

The monetary body claims the 20 percent drop in average wages over the past two years does not make up for the excessive salary increases seen prior to that, a factor which they claim has contributed to Spain’s ailing unemployment rate.

El País reduces:

Spanish banks drastically cut exposure to sovereign debt

  • Sector sold 22.4 billion euros in government bonds in December
  • Lenders gearing up for ECB stress tests later this year

Spain’s banks in December picked up the pace at which they have been offloading their holdings of sovereign debt ahead of the solvency tests they will be subjected to by the European Central Bank later this year.

According to ECB figures released Wednesday, Spain’s banks took advantage of improved market conditions to sell 22.4 billion euros worth of government bonds, more than double the 10 billion they sold in November and October’s 8.9 billion. After the latest sell-off, the exposure of Spain’s banks to sovereign debt stands at 272 billion euros.

The extent of European banks’ exposure to sovereign debt will be one of the key features in the stress tests to which they will be submitted. If banks are required to write down the value of sovereign debt not being held to maturity to current market levels, this might entail them having to increase their capital to enhance their solvency.

Off the books with the London Telegraph:

Untaxed work equal to 25pc of GDP in Spain

  • Cash transactions carried out behind the Spanish taxman’s back in 2012 hit nearly €253bn

Untaxed transactions in Spain have surged to equal nearly a quarter of the country’s output as unemployed workers scrape a living in the black economy.

The cash economy has flourished since 2008, when the collapse of a building boom hurled Spain into a double recession, a report by Treasury experts and academics said.

Cash transactions carried out behind the taxman’s back in 2012 hit nearly €253bn, or 24.6pc of gross domestic product, according to the report released by GESTHA, a tax inspectors’ union.

More cultural warring from thinkSPAIN:

Mass protest outside European Parliament in Brussels over Spain’s abortion reform

AT least 2,000 people staged a demonstration outside the European Parliament building in Brussels yesterday (Wednesday) evening in protest over Spain’s abortion law reform.

As well as members of the public of all nationalities, organisations including the European Women’s Lobby, Abortion Right, the European Humanist Federation, Catholics for Choice and the International Planned Parenthood Federation were joined by MEPs from the socialists, liberalists, the ‘greens’ and United Left.

Banners read, ‘Rights for men, but also for women’; ‘Free abortion’, and ‘All of us are Spanish women’ – a message of support meaning restrictions on legal abortion could one day affect any of them.

El País draws the line:

Five regions rebel against Popular Party’s education reform

  • Commissioners claim Minister Wert’s law is step backward and segregates students

The regions not governed by the Popular Party on Wednesday objected to the controversial new Education Law, known as the LOMCE — the seventh overhaul of the public system since the restoration of democracy in Spain — as retrogressive and divisive, and lamented the lack of debate on the legislation.

Initially drawn up to address high dropout rates, the law also enhances the role of religion in schools and permits state funding for educational centers that segregate students by gender. The law was passed in Congress with only the votes of the PP, which has an absolute majority in the lower house.

At a news conference, the educational commissioners of the Basque Country, Andalusia, Asturias, Catalonia and the Canary Islands accused Education Minister José Ignacio Wert of a “lack of institutional loyalty” in failing to adequately consult the regions on the changes. The regions are responsible for the education and health services.

TheLocal.es enumerates:

One third of Spanish kids at risk of poverty

More than a third of children in Spain live at risk of poverty, the aid charity Save the Children said on Wednesday, blaming austerity measures for worsening the situation.

The number of under-18s “at risk of poverty or marginalization” — an official EU measure of various aspects of economic hardship — soared to more than 2.8 million in 2012, the charity said.

That was equivalent to 33.8 percent of Spain’s children, it said in a report that used the latest official European Union data.

El País deplores:

Council of Europe slams Spain for denying healthcare to illegal immigrants

  • Organization’s Committee on Social Rights concerned about general slide on basic protection

The economic crisis has undermined social protection in Spain. The Council of Europe, which oversees respect for human rights in 47 countries on the continent, on Wednesday expressed concern over “regressive legislative developments concerning access to health care by foreigners illegally present in the country.”

The conclusion is part of a wide-reaching report by the European Committee on Social Rights that examines whether national laws conform to the European Social Charter.

The 2013 conclusions, released on Wednesday, found that Spain was one of several countries that had regressed on social rights compared with earlier periods. Other states where healthcare, social welfare and occupational safety have been curtailed included Austria, France, Finland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania and Latvia.

On to Lisbon and a demand from the Portugal News:

Socialists demand pension cut clarification

The Portuguese Socialist (PS) party has demanded that the prime minister specify what pension and wage cuts were considered to be temporary and accused the government of acting with a lack of transparency and creating uncertainty among the population.

These criticisms were made by António Galamba MP, a member of the PS national secretariat at a press conference where he also accused the centre-right coalition of rehearsing “propaganda manourvres” and trying to “sell illusions”.

“Isn’t it time for the government to clarify what cuts are temporary and what are definitive? “, he asked, after accusing the government of a lack of transparency by creating a work group to prepare definitive cuts to the pension system.

Italy next and a rebuke from ANSAmed:

Council of Europe blasts Italy on pensions, poverty

  • Lacks ‘overall and coordinated approach’

Italy is failing to address growing levels of poverty and to provide retirees with an adequate level of subsistence, a Council of Europe committee said in a report released on Wednesday.

The report, drawn up by the European Committee of Social Rights, noted that Rome had not demonstrated ‘’the existence of an overall and coordinated approach providing adequate measures to combat poverty and social exclusion’‘.

Italy’s national statistics bureau Istat reported in late December that the number of people in crisis-hit Italy living in absolute poverty had doubled between 2005 and 2012 and tripled in the industrial north, up to 6.4% from 2.5%. More than 1.7 million families live in a state of absolute poverty – for a total of 4.8 million individuals – amid rising unemployment and a stubborn recession, Istat said.

Raising a ruckus with The Guardian:

Italian parliament erupts amid vote on central bank capital

Opposition MPs storm government benches after speaker cuts short debate on measure to boost commercial banks

There have been chaotic and at times violent scenes in the Italian parliament after the lower house speaker made unprecedented use of her powers to cut short a filibuster by deputies of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S).

Late on Wednesday, M5S MPs stormed the government benches, put on symbolic gags and kept up a barrage of whistling after the speaker, Laura Boldrini, cut short the debate and ordered a vote on a complicated and intensely controversial measure to square Italy’s public accounts. One of Grillo’s followers said an MP from the governing majority had slapped her during the disorder.

Opposition MPs claim that the measure would hand more than €7bn (£5.8bn) of taxpayers’ money to the banks.

Emulation from TheLocal.it:

27 percent of Italians want to be more German

Over a quarter of Italians would like their country to be more like Germany, while some would prefer Italy to resemble Cuba or China, a poll this week has found.

Despite the anti-German rhetoric of populist politicians, targeting the country’s leader Angela Merkel, this week’s Ipsos poll showed that Italians may be warming to Europe’s economic powerhouse.

Twenty-seven percent of Italians said they would like Italy to more closely resemble Germany, swiftly followed by 19 percent opting for a more Norwegian approach.

After the jump, the latest on the Greek meltdown, Ukrainian uncertainty and admonitions, Turkish anxieties, Indian inflation, Thai turmoil, mixed news from China, Japanese easing, ecological alarms and woes, plus the latest edition of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Guest post: California’s epochal drought


California’s undergoing a drought that has already set the record, with the lack of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada hitting levels never before seen, spelling disaster for agriculture and for the already sorely depleted groundwater levels in California’s Central Valley.

Ignacio Chapela, the UC Berkeley plant microbiologist who first demonstrated the spread of genetically modified gene segments into non-GMO strains, has been watching the weather with an expert eye, and he just dispatched an email to friends sounding the alarm.

With his permission, here’s what he has to say:

Dear Friends,

I must be brief, but want to share with you a link that I find useful to try and grasp what is happening in the air. Some of you have asked me about a place to find information from atmosphere-watchers, and the above is a very useful one. Besides, the overcast sky in the Bay Area seems to call for some reflection.

I hear from people who were here in 76-77 that there is no need to fret about the drought, and that after all this drifting piece of rock we call California has seen worse. No doubt the latter is a truism, but I still fret. I still think the situation is unprecedented at least in the sense that such a drought has never happened in the context of over-stretching to which we have brought the landscape. A California where chamizal extends down from Mojave through the Central Valley and into the Delta—as it has apparently been for some period in the distant past—may not be a very nice place in which to buy a MacMansion anymore. Of course there are the roads, and the paved-over and lawned-over suburbs, the car-washing in LA and the fire risk and all that, but in particular, the social context seems to me set for a much more serious situation than people want to talk about.

An interesting aspect of that social context is the frightening silence resulting from the death of the newspaper and the rise of screen infotainment. People would seem OK watching the Grammys not least because it keeps them from being exposed to the poisonous outdoor air. A rare (but very superficial) article in the LA times, read with a little critical distance between the lines makes the point clear: we will not talk about it, we will not do anything about it; instead of coming out in the public space and organize, we will stay indoors and watch the screen. In Fresno, the suggested action is simple: get purple flags to hang outside public places instead of the red ones (they are not alarming enough), to tell people that they can die from breathing, presumably topreempt any lawsuits:

http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-central-valley-air-20140125,0,7934435.story

Back with the model-wonks at weatherwest.com, their reading is as fascinating as it is troubling. For one thing, they make it very clear how different this event is compared with the 76-77 event. The fact that the water in these clouds outside my window comes from the sea off Baja, rather than the usual Alaska could not be more mesmerizing—and worrying. It seems as though even the rain that apparently will come in a few days does not mean a change from the novel pattern through which the atmosphere seems to be taking new claims over mineral California. Unless California is about to join the Central American pattern of Summer rains, no imaginable amount of rain will bring our Summer and Fall anywhere near average:

Between now and the next rain season much will happen: fire will surely come—closer, out of rhythm and more dramatic than usual; crop failures, and failure to even plant will bring much misery, especially for migrant workers and others close to the agricultural fields. Decade-old ecological patterns will re-set to unknowable starting points. We also mull painful thoughts about the salmon and the whales, as they mass just off-shore for really mysterious reasons. And the last days of those millennial sequoias may have nudged that much closer to “today” and “in my watch” (snow accumulation is now at about 5% of average where sequoias need it).

But what is truly frightening for me is to think of what people in power may already be doing about it all, and how silent we all are. Jerry Brown waited  much too long to say anything about the situation, and I cannot imagine that he was waiting for sounder technical advice on whether it was bad or not, or for whom. If he is to be judged by his record, his announcement ten days ago must have come only when he thought he had the political upper hand to use the situation to his advantage. What that may mean is open to discussion, but at the very least we can expect that he has a game-plan that moves forward the Delta Tunnels—with all their consequences for the Delta as well as the water landscapes of the Shasta-Trinity and the many Klamath basins. Do your bones ache as much as mine knowing what must be transpiring in the drafting rooms of the National Labs and the BP-Berkeley buildings, now that they have fallen flat on their promises to “green” the fuel-stock for the state and the world? How long before we are back to plans to use nukes to blow-up the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge over the Pacific, or for the pacifists, to desalinate seawater and keep the commuter rush, the google buses going?

After we read his sobering communique we chanced upon a very relevant editorial cartoon from Ted Rall of the Los Angeles Times:
In California's drought emergency, Gov. Brown declares the obvious

In California’s drought emergency, Gov. Brown declares the obvious

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFuku’d


We’ll begin today’s compendium of things political, economic, and ecologic right here in esnl’s own Golden State with this from the Pew Research Center:

In 2014, Latinos will surpass whites as largest racial/ethnic group in California

According to California Governor Jerry Brown’s new state budget, Latinos are projected to become the largest single racial/ethnic group in the state by March of this year, making up 39% of the state’s population. That will make California only the second state, behind New Mexico, where whites are not the majority and Latinos are the plurality, meaning they are not more than half but they comprise the largest percentage of any group.

California’s demographers also project that in mid-2014, the state’s residents will be 38.8% white non-Hispanic, 13% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 5.8% black non-Hispanic, and less than 1% Native American. But the state’s demographics in 2014 are very different from what they had been. In 2000, California’s 33.9 million residents were 46.6% white non-Hispanic, 32.3% Latino, 11.1% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 6.4% black non-Hispanic and about 1% Native American. In 1990, white non-Hispanics made up more than half (57.4%) of the state’s then 29.7 million residents, while 25.4% of Californians were Latino, 9.2% were Asian American or Pacific Islander, 7.1% were black non-Hispanic and about 1% were Native American.

More Californiosity from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Income inequity a hot topic on California ballots

When state voters cast their ballots in November, they could be making decisions on several measures intended to bring the income levels of rich and poor closer together. They include a cap on hospital executives’ pay, more taxes on oil companies and a higher minimum wage.

There’s real money behind each effort. The hospital CEOs are being targeted by a deep-pockets union. The oil-tax measure would be financed by a rich former hedge-fund manager, and a Silicon Valley millionaire is behind the minimum-wage hike.

The money lining up against them is just as formidable. Business groups, the health care industry and oil giants are expected to do whatever it takes to try to defeat what some conservatives denounce as the products of class-warfare ideology.

And some reallly bad news for a very dry state from the San Jose Mercury News:

California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say

California’s current drought is being billed as the driest period in the state’s recorded rainfall history. But scientists who study the West’s long-term climate patterns say the state has been parched for much longer stretches before that 163-year historical period began.

And they worry that the “megadroughts” typical of California’s earlier history could come again.

Through studies of tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years — compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame: a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years.

Just how bad is it? From the USDA’s National Drought Monitor:

BLOG Drought

Hopeful signs, via The Guardian:

Occupy the minimum wage: will young people restore the strength of unions?

  • The ‘Fight for 15′ movement, driven by millennials, picks up where Occupy left off and shows a new interest in labour unions

Alicia White, 25, defied the odds of a poor background by attending college on a partial scholarship and going to graduate school. While she spends her days applying for jobs, the only work she has found so far is face-painting at children’s birthday parties.

“By going to college and graduate school, I thought I was insulating myself from being broke and sleeping on friends’ couches and being hungry again. The big, scary part is that I am going to end up where I was, but now I am going to be in that awful situation with $50,000 of debt,” White says.

White’s story is no exception. One in two college graduates are now either unemployed or underemployed. Millennials – even those from the middle class – are experiencing income inequality and America’s failed dream of upward mobility first-hand. The mismatch of college-educated young workers with low-wage, unskilled, precarious jobs is creating a new face of the once-dwindling American labor movement: young, diverse, led by millennials in their twenties and thirties, and fighting what they see as an unfair labor market. Their modest cause? Pushing for a higher minimum wage.

Linking up with Nikkei Asian Review:

Silicon Valley venture capital enhancing US-China economic ties

Tsinghua University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in China, is rapidly expanding its influence in Silicon Valley through a tech-oriented seed accelerator it supports.

Tsinghua, the alma mater of a legion of political and business leaders in China, including President Xi Jinping, is capitalizing on its powerful alumni network to make deep inroads into the heart of technological innovation in the U.S.

The seed accelerator set up by the university in April 2012, InnoSpring, has established a solid presence in America’s vibrant venture capital scene in less than two years.

Obama dives deeper into Reaganomics, resurrecting the Gipper’s “Enterpise Zones” with a new moniker. Via Bloomberg News:

Old Idea to Fix Inner Cities Gets New Name: ‘Promise Zones’

In 1994, Bill Clinton tried to revitalize the mean streets of West Philadelphia. At the time, unemployment and crime were high, graduation rates were low, and businesses were exiting. Clinton’s Philadelphia-Camden Empowerment Zone, one of several in troubled urban areas around the country, received $100 million over 10 years in federal grants and tax credits for companies that hired neighborhood residents and invested in the community. Two decades later, not a lot has visibly changed in West Philly. Shop owners work behind bulletproof glass, jobless men sit on stoops drinking beer, and another president is looking to local leaders and businesses to turn things around.

At a White House ceremony on Jan. 9, President Obama announced the first 5 of 20 “promise zones” in parts of San Antonio, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and West Philadelphia, including a half-dozen blocks that also were part of Clinton’s zone. Obama’s plan calls on federal agencies to help business owners cut through bureaucracy to win federal grants and bring together schools, companies, and nonprofits to support literacy programs and job training. “We will help them succeed,” the president said. “Not with a handout, but as partners with them, every step of the way. And we’re going to make sure it works.”

From Reuters, relevant to our latest Charts of the Day:

Why are US corporate profits so high? Because wages are so low

U.S. businesses have never had it so good.

Corporate cash piles have never been bigger, either in dollar terms or as a share of the economy. The labor market, meanwhile, is still millions of jobs short of where it was before the global financial crisis first erupted over six years ago.

Coincidence?

Not in the slightest, according to Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs:

“The strength (in profits) is directly related to the weakness in hourly wages, which are still growing at just a 2% nominal pace. The weakness of wages and the resulting strength of profits are telling signs that the US labor market is still far from full employment.

Another another American institution offshores its money and most of its ownership, via TheLocal.it:

Fiat-Chrysler to seek US stock listing, British base

The newly combined Fiat-Chrysler automaker will seek a fiscal domicile in Britain and a stock listing on a New York exchange, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne, who has overseen the company’s gradual purchase of Chrysler since 2009, is set to make the proposal to the board next week, people familiar with the plans told the Journal.

The Italian automaker completed its acquisition of Chrysler this week in a $4.35-billion transaction after a five-year merger that creates a new global car giant.

The deal involved buying the remaining 41.46 percent stake in Chrysler not held by Fiat from Veba, a fund controlled by the US autoworkers’ union UAW.

From USA TODAY, Alpine redoubt surrenders:

Swiss banks closer to deals in tax-evasion probe

  • More than 100 financial institutions willing to ID tax evaders in exchange for non-prosecution deals.

More than 100 Swiss banks and other institutions have signaled they will seek non-prosecution agreements and provide information to U.S. authorities investigating suspected off-shore tax evasion by Americans, a top Department of Justice official said Saturday.

The announcement by Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Keneally provided the first government confirmation on the number of Swiss banks that are expected to disclose how they helped U.S. clients evade taxes, provide financial data about the clients and pay fines to settle criminal investigations.

In all, 106 Swiss financial institutions filed formal letters of intent by the Dec. 31, 2013, deadline set by federal investigators, said Keneally, who made the announcement at the winter meeting of the American Bar Association’s tax section in Phoenix.

And Sky News has good news for Wall Street banksters:

Non-EU Banks Slip Through Bonus Cap Loophole

  • Wall Street banks can raise bonuses without a vote from their parent’s shareholders under new EU rules, Sky News learns.

Major global banks such as Morgan Stanley and Nomura are benefiting from a loophole in new European pay rules that could leave British rivals at a big disadvantage.

Sky News understands that banks based outside the European Union (EU) are able to approve bigger bonuses for employees of their subsidiaries in the trading bloc without recourse to external shareholders.

That means Wall Street and Asian banks can instantly consent to variable pay for senior staff worth double the level of their salaries, the maximum permissible under the new EU cap.

A quick trip to Canada and a mind-boggling headline from the uber-conservative National Post:

‘Economically worthless but emotionally priceless’: Children don’t make you happy, but can still be rewarding, expert says

A global story from The Guardian:

IMF fears global markets threat as US cuts back on cash stimulus

  • Sudden slump in Argentina leads to fears that other emerging countries could face troubles

The International Monetary Fund is closely monitoring recent events in the world’s emerging markets amid concerns that the withdrawal of monetary stimulus by the US will add to the turmoil caused by the sudden slump in Argentina.

The IMF believes that the next phase of the gradual removal of stimulus to the US economy by the Federal Reserve, due later this week, could be the trigger for fresh turbulence in countries seen as vulnerable to capital flight, such as Turkey and Indonesia.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, told participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the so-called tapering by the US central bank was a potential problem.

And from Reuters, look forward for more of those too-big-to-fail banks:

Top bankers expect EU stress tests to reignite banking M&A

Bankers expect a thorough European Central Bank (ECB) health check of the euro zone’s largest banks to reignite domestic and cross-border merger activity by rebuilding confidence among lenders.

The sovereign debt crises that nearly caused a break-up of the single currency in 2011/12 has generated mistrust among banks and caused an effective breakdown of cross-border bank investment flows as they hoarded capital at home.

But the ECB’s asset quality review, an assessment of the balance sheets of more than 120 banks that is due to be completed next autumn, should bring transparency on the quality of banks’ loans and other assets, bankers and regulators at the World Economic Forum in Davos said.

Off to England and another sign of the times from The Independent:

Exclusive: Eating disorders soar among teens – and social media is to blame

  • Social media blamed for the doubling in the number of youngsters seeking help for anorexia and bulimia in the last three years

The number of children and teenagers seeking help for an eating disorder has risen by 110 per cent in the past three years, according to figures given exclusively to The Independent on Sunday.

ChildLine says it received more than 10,500 calls and online inquiries from young people struggling with food and weight-related anxiety in the last financial year. The charity believes this dramatic increase could be attributed to several factors, including the increased pressure caused by social media, the growth of celebrity culture, and the rise of anorexia websites.

The problem is most prevalent among girls of secondary school age. During 2012-13, counselling with girls about concerns of eating problems outnumbered counselling with boys by 32:1.

The Guardian covers an exodus:

The great migration south: 80% of new private sector jobs are in London

  • Talented young people are leaving provincial cities to make a success of their lives in London and never go back, report shows

Talented young people are leaving provincial cities in their 20s, making a success of their lives in London and never go back. London is where the work is: the capital was responsible for four out of every five jobs created in the private sector between 2010 and 2012.

The brain drain meant that every major city outside the south-east is losing young people to London. One in three 22-30 year olds leaving their hometowns end up with Oyster cards and Boris as their mayor.

On to Ireland for a very familiar headline from Independent.ie:

Priests’ organisation accuse Education Minster of “underminding religion”

THE Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has hit out at Education Minister Ruairi Quinn after he claimed that primary schools should divert time spent teaching religion to core subject areas.

The Labour Minister has sparked fury after suggesting that schools should use time allocated for religion to focus on improving pupils’ reading and maths.

The group described Mr Quinn’s remarks as “unacceptable” and accused the Labour TD of attempting to devise educational policy “on the hoof”.

Germany next and a gain for eurofoes from Deutsche Welle:

Germany’s euroskeptic party revamps its image

The upstart Alternative for Germany party attracted voters in the last election with its tough anti-euro currency stance. Now, in a quest to enter the European Parliament, the party is embracing populist sentiments.

At their most recent political convention, members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were hoping to come up with a list of candidates for the upcoming European Parliament elections, but their plan didn’t quite work out. Around 100 candidates had applied for the 10 available positions. Following a 12-hour session, only six candidates had been decided on – and the session has been extended to next weekend.

Nevertheless, AfD leader Bernd Lucke used the meeting as an opportunity to present the party’s new slogan, “Mut zu Deutschland” (loosely translated: “Courage to be German”) – which replaces the former slogan “Mut zur Wahrheit” (“Courage to Uphold Truth”) that helped the AfD gain 4.7 percent of the votes in Germany’s last federal election. The party members present welcomed the move.

More from EUbusiness:

German eurosceptics poll 7% ahead of European vote

The eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party scored seven percent in a poll published Sunday ahead of May’s European Parliament elections where populist groups are hoping to boost their numbers.

The Emnid institute poll was published by newspaper Bild am Sonntag a day after the political newcomer party elected its top European candidates and railed against Germany’s mainstream political groups.

Party chief Bernd Lucke, 51, branded Chancellor Angela Merkel a “chameleon” and, under a campaign dubbed “Courage for Germany”, promised an alternative to “adaptable, streamlined, slick politicians who stand for nothing”.

The AfD, which has said it favours a return from the euro to the deutschmark currency, was formed last year but missed out on seats in September national elections, scoring just below a five percent threshold.

The rise in anti-euro sentiment met with harsh words from Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner. From Reuters:

German SPD leader raps ‘stupid’ eurosceptic campaign in Europe vote

The head of Germany’s Social Democrats in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition on Sunday denounced eurosceptic parties on the far left and right as “stupid” and pledged a tough fight against them in the European parliamentary election campaign.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, also Merkel’s economy minister and head of the Social Democrats, blasted the “uniting enemies of Europe on the left and right” over their anti-European campaigning for the May election.

“Let’s stand up against these stupid slogans about Germany being ‘the paymaster of Europe’,” Gabriel said, referring in particular to the campaign of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that has attracted voters opposed to spending taxpayer money on bailing out struggling euro zone countries.

TheLocal.de charts a familiar trend:

‘Land grab’ ups prices in eastern Germany

  • Land prices in eastern Germany are rising at dizzying rates and local farmers feel they are being squeezed out by foreign investors in a phenomenon known as “land grabbing”.

The price of a hectare of land has risen by 54 percent between 2009 and 2012 in Brandenburg state and by 79 percent in neighbouring Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, even if prices remain below those in the west of the country — at least for now.

The rural east of Germany has vast swathes of arable land inherited from communist times, when farming was in the hands of huge collectives, known as LPGs.

But today the land is increasingly being snapped up by foreign investors, often with no background or interest in farming, pushing prices up and forcing out locals.

Denmark next, and more of that hard times intolerance from New Europe:

Right-wing MEP wants to punish beggars in Denmark

Police in Denmark should be allowed to arrest beggars on the spot and the courts should be less lenient, according to one Member of the European Parliamentary who is aligned with the Dansk Folkeparti (a right-wing populist party).

Morten Messerschmidt pointed to official justice ministry figures showing a drop in the number of people convicted of begging over the past five years. For instance, only seven of the 185 people charged with begging were ever convicted.

According to Messerschmidt, this number is “surprisingly low”. He said the reason is probably because police are required to issue a warning to beggars before arresting them. He also said that a growing number of beggars in Denmark are Eastern European.

From DutchNews.nl, booming business:

One of Tilburg’s biggest industries is marijuana: NRC

Between €728m and €884m is earned from marijuana production in Tilburg region on an annual basis, the NRC said at the weekend, quoting confidential research.

The illegal industry is so large that it poses a ‘serious threat to the safety and integrity of society,’ said the report, which was put together by researchers from Tilburg University and crime prevention experts.

Marijuana production in the area involves 2,500 people and between 600 and 900 plantations, the city’s mayor Peter Noordanus told the NRC. The drugs trade has grown into a criminal industry which ‘increasingly corrupts the legal and economic infrastructure,’ report said.

On to France and wild in the streets with France 24:

Thousands take part in Paris ‘Day of Anger’ targeting President Hollande

Several thousand people marched through central Paris on Sunday in a “Day of Anger” directly targeting France’s embattled President François Hollande and his policies, ending in both clashes and arrests.

Security forces used tear gas to disperse several hundred youths who lobbed police with bottles, fireworks, iron bars and dustbins.

Police said at least 150 people had been arrested after the clashes, during which 19 officers were injured, one of these “potentially seriously”, according to one police source.

Italy next and a forced quit from EUbusiness:

Italy minister resigns amid abuse of power, corruption probes

Italy’s Agriculture Minister resigned Sunday amid allegations of abuse of power over the appointment of staff in the public healthcare system and in the wake of an investigation into the management of European Union funds for agriculture.

“I am resigning as minister. I cannot remain part of a government which has not defended my honour,” Nunzia De Girolamo said on Twitter.

De Girolamo was accused this month of exerting improper influence over the choice of healthcare managers in the city of Benevento in the Campania region, following revelations in the media of phone-tapped conversations in 2012.

She is the second minister to step down from Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s shaky coalition government.

More corruption from Corriere della Sera:

Tax-dodging Magnate owned 1,243 Properties

  • Angiola Armellini, daughter of construction entrepreneur, under investigation for hiding more than €2.1 billion from tax authorities

From Rome’s glitzy jet-set and a two-storey penthouse a stone’s throw from the Vatican to an investigation by the prosecution service complete with financial police searches. Angiola Armellini, daughter of a surveyor who made a fortune covering the capital with 90,000 cubic metres of concrete, is alleged to have hidden 1,243 properties from the tax authorities. The buildings, of which 1,239 including three hotels are located in the municipality of Rome, are claimed to be worth €2.1 billion, including cash assets.

Public prosecutor Paolo Ielo entered Ms Armellini in the register of persons under investigation along with eleven nominees and accountants alleged to be complicit. Ms Armellini faces charges of criminal association, failure to submit tax returns and submitting fraudulent returns. Criminal association charges have also been brought against the accountants. Investigators calculate that the taxable base for the avoidance amounts to €190 million. City authorities also want to recover ICI property tax that was almost never paid. The bill could be €3.5 million for two years, a figure which multiplied by five – before that a time bar comes into play – becomes €17 million.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, Ukrainian crisis spreads, Latin American woes and protests, Aussie neooliberalism, Indian uncertainty, Bangla woes, Thai turmoil, Cambodian protests, Chinese financial uncertainty, Japanese wiseguy hopes, tarsands costs, fracking havoc, drought victims, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading